What do you mean “What do I mean?”!



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.

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    listeningsEditor’s Note: Don’t worry, this is satire.  But we do have a great resource if you need to improve listening in your organization. Check out our course listings for more details. 

    You’ve always wanted to listen better.

    You know the results of the studies: leaders listen more than they talk.

    You’ve seen the infographics: listening moves your career ahead faster than anything else. And you get to keep your clothes on.

    You know it intellectually, but it’s hard to implement.

    Your mouthy mouth talks more than it should.

    If only there were a device that forced your brain to listen and your mouth to remain closed.

    After years, decades even, of your mouth prattling on with little to no input from your ears and your brain, there is finally a solution. We’re calling this patented technology “Listenings.”

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    Listenings amplify the intellectual process of listening and reduce the likelihood of saying something stupid. First, the patented technology moves all human voice sound waves to the front of the queue for brain processing. The prioritized sound waves are held in the brain until comprehension is complete. Then, and only then, is there capacity in your brain to formulate a response.

    Listen More, Talk Smarter

    Listenings preempt your brain from releasing unnecessary words from your mouth. In fact, all attempts at speech are cycled back through your brain for accuracy, relevance and emotional intelligence not once, not twice, but three times – thus reducing the probability of saying something asinine by more than 382%.  You’ll produce smart, engaging, relevant responses every time.

    Listenings calibrate themselves to the power dynamic of the situation. They’ll amp up their frequency around your boss and your boss’s boss. And they’ll tune out that annoying person in your office who can’t stop talking about the bad date he had in 2004.

    Listenings are designed in both women’s and men’s styles and come in a variety of attractive styles.

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    For just an additional $99 upgrade to the Spousal Listenings and give them as a gift you your significant other. He’ll be listening to you just like he did when you were dating, hanging on your every word and responding with empathy, intelligence and appropriateness.


    Now here’s the part where I quit being so silly.  ?

    Working Conversations has programs to help your staff (and yourself) to become better listeners and better communicators.  We can’t promise that your staff will improve their listening by hundreds of percentage points. But we do stand by our training programs and guarantee your satisfaction.

    Contact Working Conversations today to start a conversation about your organization’s communication needs today.

    Know someone who needs “Listenings?” Share this post with them today.

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