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The Power of Framing Your Conversations


Communication is one of the most important skills in life. Even when one can’t speak, one is able to communicate. You spend years learning how to read and write, and years learning how to speak. But what about communicating?

What training have you had that enables you to communicate in such a way that you really, deeply understand another human being, and you are able to lead them to making improvements in their life? Probably none, right? As accustomed as people are to “speaking,” very few actually learn to “communicate.”

Speaking is natural and automatic. But communication is an art which must be both learned and practiced. If you’re like most people, you probably struggle with ‘the art of conversation’, although lots of people think they are good communicators. Many think communication is about speaking up, being seen, being heard. Because most people think that the art of conversation is about speaking, when the opposite is true, it’s really about learning to listen.

Whether you love standing around and chatting or cringe at the thought of yet another “forced” conversation, being a good conversationalist is important for both networking and forming office relationships. An article listing the six best habits of good conversationalists said they: 1. listen more than talk, 2. they don’t always interject their own experiences, 3. they’re willing to admit what they don’t know, 4. they are well read, 5. and they look for cues . . . and I believe the first and the last are the very most important. And because I thought it was an article worth reading, I have linked it below.

Good conversationalists are those who are able to ask questions, and ask the right questions, so that a genuine conversation ensues where the other person feels heard. Being able to read ‘between the lines’ of what another person says, is a skill few develop.

Meaning Making Machines

Over the years I have been heard say many times that we humans are ‘meaning making machines’. Most of us do not really say ‘what we mean’ because so much of what we think at any point of time arises from what we have just experienced. This means I am going to be getting you to think about the ‘art of conversation’ in a way you may have never done before. Being a skilled conversationalist, business leader or even a negotiator means you must be able to ‘read between the lines’ of what is being said, and you are able to do this by looking for cues, as the article I mentioned above explains.

I am going to focus on two words in particular, that may not be commonly used, at least not in the way I intend. These two words are: ‘frame’ and ‘meme’. The meaning we make of any situation or of any set of circumstances, arises from the cues we get and these cues are found in the ‘frame’ within which we view it. I will explain what I mean by ‘frame’ shortly, however we conceptualise or view these situations within a frame that is determined by a variety of ‘memes’, and what brings many would-be conversations un-stuck, is that these two aspects of human interaction – memes and frames – are rarely utilised and often not even recognised.

The critical and often invisible work of framing, and of making memes, powers our world, and impacts every conversation we have, so they are worthy of some discussion.

What are Meme’s?

A meme is an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media). A ‘meme’ are those viral-like frames that spread from person to person and shape the narratives that define our cultural landscape. Richard Dawkins originally defined memes in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as a noun that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator”, in other words infectious ‘units of culture’ that spread from person to person.

Dawkins ends his book with: “memes … well it’ll probably never end. As long as the Internet exists, memes will too. It’s like stars in the sky.” In a paper, Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker written in 2013 by Limor Shifman (Senior Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), she discusses how the meaning of ‘memes’ has altered widely since it’s introduction by Richard Dawkins. Since Dawkins memes have been the subject of constant academic debate, derision, and even outright dismissal.

Shifman explained how the concept, once kicked out the door by many academics, is coming back through the Windows (and other operating systems) of Internet users.  saying ‘the Internet turned the spread of memes into a highly visible practice, and the term has become an integral part of the netizen vernacular” [netizen: a user of the Internet, especially a habitual or keen one]. An example of these self-replicating units of culture that morph over time and spread without attributing authorship, show up as rituals like putting candles on your birthday cake or tying a yellow ribbon around the oak tree, to sound-bytes that shape the political debate like “Too Big to Fail” or “Green Jobs.”

Proponents theorise that memes may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Aaron Lynch (best known for his book Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society) described these general patterns of meme transmission, or “thought contagion” as an element of a culture, (music, word-pattern, ideas, descriptions) or systems of behaviour passed from one individual to another within a culture.

While  memes are now linked more to the internet impact, memes are an idea that, like a gene, can replicate and evolve over time. Being able to ‘read between the lines’ means getting to the root of another persons ‘memes’ and then ‘framing’ your response within that context.

What are Frames?

Have you ever been in a conversation where it seems to be going nowhere? Both parties are almost stuck in their own track with little chance of progress. Simply by changing a frame, a skilled conversationalist can get the conversation moving in the direction they want. Let me explain what I mean by “frame” first.

Framing is a technique that almost all high-performing negotiators use to control the flow and outcome of a conversation in crucial closing situations. A frame refers to how we may position our thinking within a context. As Christine Walter explains in her article How to ‘Frame’ a Conversation, versatility in utilising frames within discussions and project meetings can ensure inclusion of all, rapport and productive meetings, and she shares six basic ‘frames’ one can use.

Although you may have never heard of it, you’ve probably used ‘framing’ more than a time or two in your life yourself, maybe much more than you realise. Framing is really just means presenting a general view. Most of the time I suppose we’re fairly unaware of our own frames. We assume that we’re just seeing the world as it is, rather than in any particular way. I suspect we only really notice our frame when it becomes apparent that someone else has a different one.

Just say, for the purpose of creating an example, that you are of the view that wealth isn’t an especially important thing but that creativity is enormously interesting and valuable. That is exactly the kind of assumption that can be reversed by a strong framer with the opposite view, even (perhaps especially) if the difference isn’t expressed explicitly, but rather trickles through the conversation indirectly.

Having carefully built an entire life around the values you hold, you might find yourself suddenly feeling peculiarly inadequate about your own lack of wealth, or oddly uncertain about your creative pursuits. You might begin to question how and why you have felt this way, and this is a good thing. Many of our beliefs and attitudes about life, and everything pertaining to it (and death too) are built up by decisions we’ve made about the matter in hand. Whether we have ever given any thought as to the reasons why we believe what we do is an entirely different matter.

When you want to discuss something with someone, and you know it may conflict with what they believe, how you frame your content of the conversation will determine whether they are able to see it ‘through your eyes’ or mearly oppose what you say. Handling difficult conversations take skill, strategy and courage. They require us to speak up and express how we think or feel, which often makes us feel uncomfortable.

A common response is to avoid the conversation, but this will often make things worse and the conversation harder to have in the long run. To be effective as leaders we need to be able to provide ‘frank and fearless advice’ but in a way that helps people to feel valued and want to do their best. This requires good framing skills, and it also means we need to be able to say nothing, if the circumstance warrants it. Framing is often the most powerful tool, in getting yourself heard.

We need to be aware of our own frames, our own preferences, beliefs and ideologies When we recognise our own frames we can see how they impact what we say when it comes to sharing with others, what we believe they could or should do to achieve their self-expressed goals. This takes skill in communication, which comes from practice. Drawing on ones ability to frame and re-frame gives us the ability to be able to to master dealing with difficult conversations.

How To Frame A Conversation

By changing the position of someones thinking, their frame, we can change the context and create new meanings or understandings in our conversations. It is possible, and in business or coaching it is necessary, to think about or discuss something from a variety of frames to check meanings, explore other opportunities and consider impact in other areas that may be affected. The basic concept of showing another person your ‘frame’ of reference, of giving them an understanding of your ‘meme’ is pretty simple, but it can take years to master. Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Start with a clear idea of where you want the interaction with the other person to go.
  2. Assume a firm rooting in your perception of reality, and find memes to support it. This becomes your truth. This is where you will act and speak from. You will invite the other person into your domain, not go into theirs.
  3. Create the dominant “frame” by identifying and negating objections before the other party even has a chance to raise them.
  4. Steer the conversation towards collaboration. Allow the other party to feel important in the conversation, all the while keeping your desired outcome in mind, and use cultural memes to overcome reservations.

There are ‘framers’ whose world views are generous and compassionate, or funny, or exciting, or profoundly hopeful and characterised by a sense of unending possibility. I think it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing to find ourselves and other people drawn into these sorts of frames. Whether it’s something that diminishes our fears and concerns that are otherwise disturb us in troubling ways or something that extends us in valuable ways, I think frames have a powerful part to play in leadership.

It goes without saying that this power should only be used with positive intent. Don’t use it to lie or deceive others. Instead, use it to direct situations that would normally leave you feeling powerless. From the classroom to the boardroom to the showroom, having the ability to assert yourself and control the conversation by framing it properly can help you move swiftly and stand out amongst peers who sway in the tides of everyone else’s opinions. Positive frames tend to elicit positive feelings and result in risk taking and proactive behaviour. Negative frames tend to elicit negative feelings and result in risk aversion and reactive behaviour. Stress and the pressure of time amplify both.

How Do You Frame Your Life?

There’s a battle going on in your life. It has major consequences for you – your health, your wealth, your feelings and behaviours – and yet you aren’t even aware of it, even though it’s happening mostly right inside your own brain. It’s one of the fundamental struggles that define human existence: the framing battle. “It turns out that the meaning of reality – the experiences, events, objects, processes, and facts we encounter – is not set but rather it is dynamic.

It’s not absolute, it’s contextual. It’s not passively observed but actively constructed. The framing choices you make determine the boundaries, appearance, meaning, and value of your experience.” says Noam Shpancer Ph.D. in his article, Framing: Your Most Important and Least Recognized Daily Ment. Start framing the kind of life you want by using your mouth. Do not snare yourself with negative words. If you say “I am going to get into trouble … you will.” You’ll bring it into being.

Start speaking the positive of what you want to have happen. Speak life into your world.

Apart from  ‘framing’ the way we set up a conversation, we can also ‘reframe’ a conversation, the way people think, or the context through which they view any subject. Reframing takes the same situation and the same circumstances and then gives those “facts” a different meaning. This different meaning allows us to take a different approach and gives us new possibilities for the action that we might take and the responses we might make. If you would like more on the art of framing and reframing, read more here on reframing. It is a powerful leadership tool.

Plus if you are in the Savvy Team, ask us for a Step-By-Step Checklist for Dealing With Difficult Conversations

Reference on Conversation Skills

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One thought to “The Power of Framing Your Conversations”

  1. Very interesting article on the art of communication, which I agree means attentive listening and asking the right questions. It also means paraphrasing to ask whether one has understood what was said in order to clarify. Reframing is a great tool for the ecology of one’s own mind, and in external situations. I liked the example given about the value given to creativity, and how through reframing focus may be repositioned upon wealth creation (another form of creativity). I would like to be as skilled as the masters of reframing within conversations, and more especially to find those who would enjoy exploring these NLP concepts in practice.

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