What do you mean “What do I mean?”!
Category : business communication
The six directors sat with Jim, their VP, brainstorming ways to get out of their latest technological dilemma. Several features on their flagship product would not work with the new database upgrade they were undertaking. The ideas were flowing, but the “breakthrough” idea that would solve their problem remained elusive.
“How about re-writing the code in R?” Sharon asked, proposing they use a relatively new statistical programming language that’s particularly useful for visualizing big data.
“Yeah right, like Rrrrr’s going to magically fix everything. Do you even know how long it would take to rewrite the whole thing in R?” Steven muttered.
Sharon was at a loss for how to respond. The spirit of Steven’s comment broke from the collaborative nature of their brainstorming meeting. There wasn’t anything in Steven’s berating of her idea that was easy to respond to or challenge directly. Rather, the comment felt like a dig, and it felt personal.
“What do you mean?” Sharon put forth, working hard to manage her emotions and not become defensive.
“What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” Steven shot back snidely.
“Let’s take some time to think through the ideas that we put on the table today,” Jim said, curtailing a situation that was likely to go from bad to worse. “We’ll regroup tomorrow, same time.”
Sharon left the meeting feeling defeated, both personally and professionally.
What happened in the meeting? Steven broke the frame.
What frame, you ask? Well, every conversation has a frame, or a set of indirect and implicit messages – or meta-messages – that tell us what is going on.
Framing, a concept developed by anthropologist and communication theorist Gregory Bateson, provides context. It gives clues about what we mean when we say something. Much like a picture frame wraps around a picture and provides a style for the picture (classic, antique, modern, etc.), a frame provides stylistic cues and meaning in conversation.
The frame in conversation, indirect and unspoken, sends messages about what we think is going on and our attitude about the messages in the conversation.
The initial frame in the conversation above had a spirit of collaboration and trust. Steven’s remark broke the collaborative frame.
If you try to name a frame, you indirectly invoke another one. For example, when Sharon asked “What do you mean?” she questioned his changing of the frame. That provoked Steven and he went on the defensive, shooting back a snide remark. In effect, he was saying ‘How dare you challenge me and my reframing?’
When we feel reframed by others, like Sharon did by Steven, there are two choices: accept the reframe or resist it. In order to do either one effectively, we must recognize that a reframe has occurred. That means, we need to be paying attention to not only what is being said but also how it is being said.
In asking Steven about the reframe (“What do you mean by that?”) Sharon challenged his reframe. In order to resist his reframe, Sharon could have said something like this (in a most collaborative tone): “Steven, thank you for keeping us grounded in reality. We do have to account for the resources of our potential solutions. Could you provide us with an estimate of how long it would take to rewrite the code?”
In every turn of the conversation we are either accepting the frame or rejecting it and reframing. Listening for the frame can provide great insight as to the dynamics and the power of those in the conversation.
When was the frame switched on you? What were the results?
Share your thoughts in the comments.