Controlling the Conversational Frame
Learning how to frame a conversation comes with a great deal of power. Along with that power, however, should come also a greater sense of self awareness. When we talk about controlling the frame of a conversation; the word control can seem somewhat intense. Control in this sense is not defined as dictating people or overpowering another person in the conversation. In fact, the goal in controlling the frame of a conversation should be to fully engage the other person in the conversation. Your framing is not to push your own opinions or beliefs, but to excite and engage another person into the topic or ideas you are trying to convey.
One important early step to framing a conversation is to get a sense of who you are talking to. Do you know this person? If so, what have your past encounters been like, are they good listeners or over talkers? Do they seem to be easily offended? Do they get easily distracted or lost when you are talking? Ask yourself these questions before entering into a conversation with a person. This is more easily done in a professional setting, when you may have planned meetings. However, there may be the case that you encounter a person without planning, and framing the conversation can come in useful to build your network. In this case, you will want to assess what your goal of this spontaneous conversation will be. Is this person someone who could help you advance in your field? If so, the goal of your framing might be to highlight your own skill set or experience, while also expressing your interest in this person's own work. Controlling the frame of such a spontaneous conversation will involve the use of questioning to hone in on the person's interests and work. Asking questions will give you full control of the conversation because you are throwing out a topic and leading the person to respond to your own thoughts. Some people may not respond to your questions, however, in this case, the skill of validation followed by redirection is key. We will discuss this skill more in depth later. Overall, in an unplanned and spontaneous conversation, your control will come from a quick assessment of your conversation goals and using those goals to construct questions that will lead the conversation to a place you want to go.
In returning back to the skill of validation followed by redirection, this skill will come in handy as you are weaving together the framework of the overall conversation. As you are amidst conversation, you may be working in questions or statements focused on a certain idea or topic you wish to discuss, but the other person seems to keep changing topics, or trying themselves to control the frame. In this situation, you do not want to ignore what they are saying, as this could come off as arrogant, uncaring, or uninterested. This is where validation is key. Validate what the other person just said, for example, "Yes, I see where that can be really important, John." Then follow this validation with a redirective statement, "But what did you think about my point about X?" This brings the person back to what you were discussing, and does so in a respectful, but direct manner. In a way it is expressing that you took in and are considering what the other person is saying, but you also want to hear their own thoughts on your point. To continue the sense that you care about their points, later on in the conversation bring up something they said earlier and see if you can tie it together with your own conversation points. This will highlight that you listened and took in what they said, by referring back to that point, while also molding the conversation points together, you will begin to develop a working relationship. All the while, you are controlling the overall frame of the conversation.
There might be situations where the frame of the conversation might be sensitive to the other person. In this case, your own awareness of the other person's reactions and emotions is vital. Framing any conversation is going to require your skill of reading the other person. As you frame a conversation, you are the one in the driver seat, which means you have responsibility to check in with the other person. Is the other person making facial expressions that might indicate he or she took offense to something you said as you guided the conversation? Is the person seems tense or avoiding eye contact? This could indicate you are touching on a topic that the person does not know much about, or has had negative past experiences with. In these situations, you will want to demonstrate your empathy for the person. In some cases it is appropriate to clearly express your concern, "I notice you seem a little affected by this, if you want to talk at any point, let me know." In a professional arena, you may be framing the conversation, and you are perceiving the other present to sense how they are reacting to your information, and they can seem distracted or bothered by you. In these situations, you might want to quickly assess how you are presenting the information. Are you framing the conversation in an overly controlling manner? This can lead to the other person losing interest because you are not giving them the chance to contribute. It could also be the case your boss or colleague have other things on their mind, in which case it is also helpful in a conversation to be clear about what you perceive, while doing so in a caring and empathic tone. "It seems like you have something else on your mind, do you want to set up a time to talk about this later?" While this steers the conversation away from your goals, it is still involves you taking in information and deciding what to do with the conversation, which is framing in it's purest form.
Overall, in framing a conversation around sensitive issues or having a sensitive issue come up, you will want to be acutely aware of the other person's non-verbals. If you are sensing a reaction, do not ignore it. This can leave a negative impression. The best strategy is to offer empathy and genuine support. It may simply not be a good time to be having the conversation you are having, the point is that you pick up on this information and are able to them re-frame the conversation to what it needs to be in that moment. Along this sense, while framing involves you steering a conversation, it is more like you using your communication skills to both produce and take in information in a way that allows the conversation to be what it needs in that unique place and time, with that specific person. In other words, you are framing within the constraints of any conversation. Things will come up that you cannot predict or control, however, framing is a very useful skill because it allows you to master how to handle anything that comes up in a conversation and still be able to steer it to a place that feels like you accomplished something; whether that be giving support, getting information, making a connection, or receiving approval for a plan.
As you continue to practice the components of framing a conversation your own self awareness is important to be developing along your entire journey of mastering conversation. In the context of framing a conversation, your self awareness will come in understanding your own opinions versus your knowledge. This is important to distinguish because it will greatly impact how you frame a conversation. If you are at work and you are in a conversation about a project, so your framing goal is to clearly and concisely provide a roadmap of the project's life, you will want to stick with the facts. What did you or your team do from start to finish. At times it is easy to fall into a trap of pulling in opinions about certain team members or events that happened along the way; however, you will want to return back to the purpose of your conversation and how your framing serves that purpose. Therefore, if opinions are not contributing any useful understanding to the other person, they serve no place in your framing of the conversation. Your self awareness will be important with this skill because at times you may unconsciously bring up a topic or situation without realizing, then by the time you do realize that you got off on a useless tangent, the other person has to leave and you missed an opportunity to share what you needed.
Another very powerful tool to framing the conversation is learning to listen closely to both your own word choices, as well as the other person's word choice. Many times, people underestimate the power of carefully selecting your words. Words choice selection is a skill that can greatly develop your ability to frame any conversation because the words are like the paint of a canvas, the way in which you arrange and use the words will impact the overall conversation. This is where continued mindful awareness of yourself in conversation will give you insight into where you currently stand in terms of your word choice. Pay attention to the words you are using to describe a certain event, project, or other person. Do you notice a pattern? Do you use certain words more in certain conversations? Or perhaps, you use certain words depending on your mood? The combinations are endless, and while this can seem daunting to analyze, you own close attention to your language in a conversation truly can help you realize the power of words in framing a conversation. One prime example of how word choice affects our life unconsciously is in media and marketing. Headlines and commercials use the power of certain words to influence our choices and behaviors. In many cases, words can have such power because they play on emotion. Evoking emotion in another person or using a certain word to trigger emotion can provide you with even more skill in framing a conversation. However, do not forget what was discussed above about being present in perceiving the other person. If you are evoking an emotion that is too much for the person too handle, you as the driver framing the conversation are obligated to respond to the other person in an empathic and caring way.
In returning to the power of word choice, as you realize the words you use can paint the canvas of the conversation. It is also a next step to acquire the skill of also attuning to the word choice of the other person. One basic method for this is you hear the other person make a statement such as, "well they will be…" and in this example you may or may not know who "they" are, so it can demonstrate your own stance in framing the conversation by interjecting at this point to ask, "okay who are they." Also recognize your use of tone in these situations, as you do not want to seem condescending, rather are asking for clarity. However this will demonstrate to the other person you are paying close attention to their words and want to use what they have to say for the greater purpose of the conversation. You will also want to pick up on common phrases or go-to words (words the person uses frequently) might be. This is very useful information because it can help you to initiate or re-gain (depending on the conversation) your own framing of the discussion. However, by using the other person's words or phrases here and there, it can greatly connect you with that person. This is a skill often done in therapy by counselors. The counselor will use the client's language in a way that serves the purpose of the therapy session. So the therapist is framing the entire session, but by using the other person's language they are able to keep the client engaged and also tie together both parties goals of the conversation.
Overall, a lot of power can come from developing your skills in framing a conversation. This is why one of the biggest take home messages to learning these skills should be to assess what your goals for the conversation are and to ensure that you are not framing a fully one-sided conversation. You will still want the other person to gain something from the conversation and also be attuned to the words they use and the emotions they express (even non-verbally). Framing is not about control, but about leading the conversation. Sometimes leading means you recognize the need to re-balance the conversation so the other person feels important and engaged.