Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Politics of Assertions vs. Assessments

During a short training program I recently attended, the trainer focused on the three components of business counseling: active listening, assertions and assessments, and open-ended questions. As the trainer starts articulating each component, I could not think of anything else than to think of its strong relationship to the popular discourses on Tibetan politics in diaspora. Though it may be ridiculous to connect business counseling to politics, I found meaning in this ridiculousness.

Active listening is a skill that many individual lacks in general. It’s a skill that is beyond listening attentively to the speaker. It is listening to the whole person - listening to the head, heart, and the feet. From personal experiences thus far, listening to people on the streets, I see very less of active listening. People generally tend to listen less and speak more to assert their point across. Without active listening, there will be no learning. And this is clear from the public discussion we often see among Tibetans discoursing on politics. They believe their standpoint and/or understanding of Tibetan politics as right and others as wrong or misleading. As such, no matter how many public discussions (including writings) we may have on Tibetan politics, there will be no learning.

With the advancement of technologies, daily news is a click away. People can now read what is happening around the globe via smart phones anywhere anytime. Though news may be mostly facts, its descriptions are not. Intellectuals (writers, journalists, bloggers, news readers, politicians, leaders, etc.) tend to share these descriptions as what I call “flexible facts”. Flexible fact is the reason why I see a relation between assertions and assessments and the Tibetan politics in diaspora.

According to P. J. Denning of Denning Institute, “assertions are claims about what is observable in the world; they are capable of being witnessed and the witnesses can classify them as true or false”. A good example could be: I am 5 feet 6 inches. This could be verified by a third party. So, assertions are descriptive facts that are provable. Most important to this article, assertions are not influenced by personal moods or emotions.

P. J. Denning then describes assessments as evaluations, judgments, or opinions about the world. They are claims made by the speaker, but unlike assertions, they cannot be verified by witnesses. In other words, assessments are personal observation and judgment. For instance, “I am tall” is an assessment because tall is not an assertion. It’s a judgment or evaluation that may not be verifiable because of its vagueness and multiple meanings. A question like ‘how you define tall’ is a claim made by the speaker only. Most relevant to this article, assessments are results from personal standards, beliefs, moods, experiences, and backgrounds.

Tibet continues to be a mysterious land for many people in the West. And many Tibetans have tried hard to keep this mysterious and exotic Tibet alive in exile too. The mystery Tibet or the land of Shangri-la remained cut off from western influences and colonization prior to the World War II. Because of Tibet being unexplored, many historical facts about Tibet remain contestable. For instance, Tsering Shakya acknowledges that Cholka-sum is an idea “deeply embedded in the political culture of the Tibetan diaspora, where the core of the refugees’ political identity lay in the conception of Tibet as the unity of Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang. But although the idea enjoys universal support among the exile community, it has no recent historical base and it is difficult to assess the extent of support it might enjoy inside Greater Tibet” (The Dragon in the Land of Snows, p. 387). We also know that even in 1959, Tibetans who live outside U-Tsang region used the term bhod-pa to refer to people of U-Tsang only. The term bhod-pa travelled with a new and wider meaning to India, along with Tibetans seeking refuge, to represent the people of Cholka-sum.

In recent years, after 60 years of refuge in an outside world, Tibet may not be as mysterious, mystic, and exotic as it once used to be. However, public discourses on Tibetan politics seem to be at the same mysterious level - contested on flexible facts derived from personal assessments.

Many writings on Tibetan politics are grounded on personal assessments and not assertions. However, the general public tends to discourse on these written assessments as assertions which not only creates misinformation but also unwarranted friction. For instance, many people view a writer’s work as assertions - a descriptive fact - and not assessments belonging to the writer only. It is important to realize that assessments are not assertions. Only with this realization, people will be able to put themselves in a better position and space to open their minds for new information, meaning, and learning.

To recognize assessments, people do not need to possess an academic degree or abilities. It’s just a simple logic - intellectual capabilities to think.

Sometimes a fact may differ based on the positioning of the speaker. For instance, “Tibet was an independent country” is a fact for most Tibetans but it’s not the same for governments of the world. As far as I know, no present government recognizes Tibet as an independent country. So, it is a flexible fact that could be assertions as well as assessments for Tibetans.

For some, my newfound meaning could still be ridiculous. If you do, remember, it’s your assessment and not assertion. The underlining message of this article is to help recognize the politics of assertions and assessments as well as to help identify the need to swap between assertions and assessments occasionally to open your thinking cap.


  1. Sorry, but Tsering Sakya's assertion that Cholka sum is an exile phenomena is actually an assessment on his part. The names Utsang, Kham and Amdo all existed throughout Tibet's history. Also, your assertion that Bodpa only meant Utsang people before 1959 is also not a fact. Amdo people call themselves wodpa, with a slight accent.

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