By Geof Lory
Last Friday my oldest daughter Jenna asked if she could go to a late movie that I knew would not end until after 11:00 pm. She was going to be with a group of her friends, so I agreed. Then she informed me that I would have to pick them up from the theatre at 11:15 pm and then drive her three friends home. Having driven her friends home before after earlier movies, I knew they live all over town. It would be at least a 45-minute job to do what she was asking. I was just about to tell her that I was not willing to do that, when I stopped myself and decided to try some reframing instead. (What good are kids if you can’t practice on them?)
“So, let me understand this Jenna. You would like me to wake up 30-45 minutes after I have been sleeping in my warm comfortable bed, get dressed, go out into the cold Minnesota winter night, drive 15 minutes to pick you up and then another 30 minutes to drop off your friends just so you can see a movie tonight that you could see tomorrow for half-price at the matinee? Have I essentially captured the gist of your request?” Unfortunately I had, and from the look on her face, I had made my point, too.
When we see things exclusively from our own perspective, looking at it from someone else’s perspective can be surprisingly humorous, disarmingly ridiculous or perhaps even insensitive. Regardless, someone else’s perspective is not typically the same as your own. Each person brings to the situation a combination of their history and priorities, which by definition are their own. It is the rare individual who doesn’t operate from primarily their own frame of reference. Because, what other frame of reference do we have? Getting out from behind your own eyeballs and out of your own head and into someone else’s is inherently an unnatural act.
This personal parochial perspective is why teams of diverse people are typically better at producing complete solutions to complex problems: because they can represent complementary and varied views of both the problem and how to address it. On diverse teams, inviting the alternative view becomes the norm, not the exception. I have been working on teams that represent such different views so much that when we reach consensus too quickly it raises a red flag for me. Have we thought this through completely? Is everyone checked in and comfortable representing their ideas? Do I need to reframe this to promote some thought before confirmation? Don’t get me wrong, I like consensus, I just want to make sure it is conscious consensus. Reframing helps me assure that.
Reframing is a deliberate and conscious approach to communication that uses the same technique that comedy does. I once read “good comedy is just real life presented at its extreme.” Taking a reasonably common occurrence, such as a phone call or swearing, and turning it into the absurd is what Bob Newhart and George Carlin do so well. They didn’t think of things we didn’t think of, they took things we were all familiar with and reframed them in the extreme. They are masters of making the obvious more obvious, to the point of ridicule.
Now, I’m not suggesting you turn to comedic reframing to communicate better on your team, but periodically we could all benefit from the small dose of reality reframing can bring. Brainstorming sessions that use reframing can reveal the foolishness of long-held practices that no longer serve a productive purpose. Deliberately walking through the details of a use case will many times show the fallacy of the design not apparent in the code or on paper. Using reframing in risk assessment also can bring to light assumptions not thought of before.
Of course, this same diversity creates opportunities for friction. Unfortunately, we are not always open to other’s perspectives. Think of how many times you “listened” to someone just enough to tell that they were done so you could then explain your point of view. Reframing is a technique that can be used to help listen as well as explain.
Trying to step into the shoes of someone else to reframe their ideas through their perspective will almost always create some new enlightenment or confirm previous assumptions. Both are better places to be than wondering. I almost always prefer certainty to ambiguity, especially in communication.
I use reframing even when it isn’t obvious that I am. I do it silently to myself. (I’m easily entertained as you can tell from most of my articles.) I do it to try and shake my close-minded view and get out from behind my own eyeballs. I have to admit that I am challenged by it, mostly because it requires me to drop some of my ego, a practice I still need lots of practice with. When I can do it, however, it develops consciousness and compassion, both attributes that grease the wheels of high performance teams.
High performance teams embrace the alternative perspective, or even the absurdity of it, for what it is worth: another person’s perspective. Not always valid, maybe not worth pursuing, but certainly something to consider. And that is all that reframing asks, that another voice is allowed to be heard for what it is worth: another person’s perspective. If more clarity comes to the original idea via the reframing, it has served its purpose and caused the communication to be clearer.
So when Jenna says, “Dad, can you pick us up at 11:00 and drop off my friends too?” perhaps what she is really saying is, “Dad, I really like this hot guy who works the late shift at the movie theatre and it would be so cool if you let me go to the late movie and then drive him home so I could see where he lives.”
Well, if you reframe it that way, “Absolutely NOT!”
Geof Lory is a project management coach and father of two teenage daughters. He is a partner with GTD Consulting, LLC in St. Paul, MN. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.