Frames Create Communication Success

Communication can be seen as the art of framing. Learning to create effective frames to facilitate understanding, interaction, and behavior is one of the most essential leadership communication skills.

Frames shape meaning. They are focus tools that help us manage and understand experience in almost every aspect of our lives. From picture frames to the frames created by the windows, doorways and rooms of our homes and buildings, frames determine how we interpret and experience our lives.

In communication, we use verbal and conceptual message frames to establish a common purpose, engage audience buy-in, and remove personal or conceptual obstacles to collaboration in order to achieve our goals.

Clarify Purpose & Payoff

The first step to creating an effective frame is clarifying the purpose you want to achieve and determining how you will present the payoff for everyone involved. What are the shared benefits to accomplishing your desired outcome?

Understanding common ground is key. Do you need to address any audience biases or challenges? If necessary, review past interactions to identify and address specific patterns or barriers. You may want to open the conversation with a request for assistance, or use a soft appeal, especially in situations where push back is possible.

Here’s an example of a soft appeal to open a conversation with a senior manager about her negative behaviors that are demotivating staff: “Susan, I appreciate you taking time today so we can figure out how best to motivate the high performance you expect in your area. I know you’ve been concerned about performance lately. Together I know we can think of ways not only to improve staff work quality and morale, but to help us both feel much better.”

Define Scope & Interactive Guidelines

Next, frame the way the interaction will move forward and be clear about content scope and behavioral agreements. Setting clear guidelines regarding how you will work together may be the most crucial part of an effective interactive frame, because it sets up the terms of the interaction itself. It is also a step that is often neglected either because people take it for granted, or they feel uncomfortable doing it.

Defining the scope of the content includes agreeing to address specific topics that serve your purpose and to table topics or issues that might be outside the scope. Behavioral agreements include agreeing to keep the conversation neutral or objective, to address facts, observable data and issues, rather than personalities, politics or stories. Finally, having a time frame for the conversation, follow up, and accomplishing action steps provides structure and motivates outcomes.

Here’s an example with manager Susan: “To make best use of our hour, I’d like to agree to a few process guidelines. Regarding content, let’s make a quick list of the top three or four performance priorities we want to address. If other issues come up while we’re talking, we can decide if they fit in this meeting or we need to table them for another time. I know we will be focusing on staff performance, but I’d like us to focus on behavior in light of our performance standards and process, and wherever possible avoid stories, or evaluation of personality issues. Our goal is to help people achieve optimal results. Once we have agreed on action steps, we can set up dates to accomplish them, and whatever meetings we need to follow up, OK?”

Listen Actively & Stay Flexible

As you facilitate the conversation, remember that using active listening techniques and staying flexible are your most important situational tools. Active listening is a catch-all term used to encompass a suite of interactive engagement tools. Doing less talking is just the start.

Active listening involves using all our powers of observation including our sense of intuition or what is often called emotional intelligence. A great facilitator is alert to verbal and non-verbal messages, especially those that indicate the need for a shift of direction or a pause to clarify or reframe an idea.

Questions are important tools to clarify or deepen shared understanding and demonstrate engagement. To ask great questions, a facilitator has to remain connected and responsive, focused on the speaker’s meaning. Listening actively may even involve interrupting the speaker at a natural pause to ask a specific question that elicits deeper or better information. It may also involve allowing silence. A pause in response to a question may mean someone is just thinking.

Language tools include using “I” or “We” statements, avoiding judgements, personality biases, or stories (except short ones that have a stated point), and making sure that information about behavior is discussed or described in context of its importance to the business outcome.

Flexibility is also critical to a smooth, successful interaction. Once you have agreed to basic frame guidelines and behavioral agreements, if outcomes seem to change during the conversation, decide whether you need to adjust. Perhaps something that didn’t seem to be a priority in the conversation turns out to be critical to your outcome. If so, remember to identify it and decide how it fits in your plan before moving ahead.

Close the Frame

At the end of the conversation, remember to close your frame by restating agreements about changes, new behaviors, action steps, and follow up dates. Closing the frame seems like an obvious step, but it’s surprising how often it is not done.

For more on creating and using effective communication frames in any type of interaction, please contact me.