Persuading Through The Art of Framing
Imagine you and your spouse or partner are making dinner plans. You propose that you should go out to eat. You both have had a long week, eating out gives the convenience of relaxing without spending time on the food prep, cooking and clean up that will follow.
Your partner on the other hand insists on cooking at home. They feel that eating out is unhealthy and makes the case that eating at home is better. And they make the case that the time spent cooking together also creates time for conversation and connection.
I am no fortune teller, but what’s coming next is an argument, debating your position (eat out) vs your partner’s (dine in).
There is seldom a golden argument that would convince the other person to see things your way. Doubling down on your arguments, causes the other person to also double down on their arguments, leading to a stalemate, and critically, hurtful feelings. I used a social example here, but it happens multiple times a day at work. For example, when you have debated topics like “Should we send a status report weekly or biweekly?” A weekly status report ensures stakeholders are always in sync (value is keeping them in the loop) vs biweekly might be because we don’t want to overwhelm their inbox (value is being helpful and useful).
To maximize the other person’s receptiveness to your idea, instead of arguing your point, you should instead frame the discussion appropriately.
What are frames and how are they created?
We don’t just deal with facts. We as humans, take the facts (objective information), interpret them or derive meaning (the story we tell ourselves based on our own beliefs, assumptions and past context) and create a label or category to that original set of facts. This now becomes the frame. This frame now drives human behavior.
It is never the facts but the other person’s interpretation or derived meaning of those facts that creates their behaviors. Depending on the frame, this could create a trigger or strong reaction from the other person, which in turn may or may not be your desired response.
This is how our brain processes information. It is trained to quickly categorize information based on past patterns. You will seldom be able to convince the other person by doubling down on arguments that stick to the original framing. To change human behaviors, you have to change the frame.
Reframing is placing the information in a new context in order to change how the other person perceives it and by extension, changes their behavior. To change human behaviors, change the frame. Don’t spend your energy debunking their values that they hold so dearly with the false hope that this will lead to a change in their behavior. Instead, reframe the conversation in terms of other people’s values and beliefs. By doing so, you also take the perceived “personal attacks” out of the arguments and avoid alienating colleagues. Instead, people may view you as an ethical and principled person that is strong at negotiation and persuasion!
Reframing requires you to listen intently to discover shared beliefs and understand where the other person is coming from. So before you go off convincing someone on your point of view, take the time to listen for and understand what they stand for and value. If they highlight important points that you had not considered yourself, be open to changing your own positions as well. Now identify shared beliefs. Once you identify these shared beliefs, mapping your goals to their existing beliefs makes the reframing exercise a breeze.
Tom Sawyer famously got his friends to whitewash the fence for him, by framing it as a desirable activity for his friends. While changing human behaviors has the potential for manipulation, the ideas I outline here are merely to highlight how to create alignment with other people in your organization. Your actions directly impact your credibility, reputation and brand in the organization.
Reframing can be great for employee morale and happiness, by finding a different meaning for the interpreted behavior. Sometimes people think their outlook is the only way to see a problem. I use reframing to broaden their horizons and identify alternate interpretations that they did not originally consider.
- Situation: an employee of mine was upset because our VP declined his request for a 1:1 meeting, asking him to send a written report instead (fact)
- Old (negative) interpretation — my VP does not value meeting with me or considers my ideas unworthy of her time.
- New (positive) interpretation — my VP knows I am a strong written communicator and is asking me to email her the information to optimize her time.
Secondly, without reframing anything, you can change the context to make the most of “undesired” behaviors. Specifically, find a context where the behavior is useful. For example, I have an employee that is pretty good at holding his point of view. Some coworkers call him stubborn. However, there are situations when this attribute or frame is very valuable. For example, if I have to defend a prioritization decision in front of senior execs, I frequently take this person with me. This employee’s so-called negative quality is a strength, as it helps us minimize randomizations and helps the team stick to our plan.
So next time you think you are going to get into an argument with a colleague, take a step back and reflect. Do you know what your colleague’s beliefs and values are? People try to be consistent with past behaviors. Is there an occasion in the past where this colleague demonstrated the exact behavior you need from them right now? If so, what was the framing? Can you frame the current conversation accordingly so you get the exact same response from your colleague as in the past?