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Reframing 101

by Maria Simpson
July 2012 Maria Simpson
Here is a statement that was directed at one of my colleagues in the hallway of the place I worked a long time ago:

You have to do something. Nobody on your team likes you.

As part of an exercise, I asked participants to identify what was wrong with this statement and reframe it to “keep the truth of the statement and remove the toxicity.”

Some of the reframes were, indeed, less toxic but no more effective because they shifted the intent of the original sentence and remained very personal. One statement read, “I would like you to think about what you can do to encourage commitment from your team to work with you.” The emphasis is now on team commitment, but the implication is still that the team leader has done something wrong. In a similar vein, another reframe read, “What strength and contribution can you bring to enhance the team?” This statement feels as if it is closer to the intent of the original statement, but seems like a challenge instead of an invitation to dialogue.

Another shift of meaning was, “I hear you would like all members of the team to get along well with each other.” This is actually a positive goal for a team leader, but it is not what was heard by the manager at all. The goal here is to shift the emphasis from one person to the whole team. If the gossip is true, then the problem is with the team leader, and shifting the definition of the problem doesn’t really create an opportunity to address it. I assume that, after discussing ways of “getting along well with each other,” the conversation will shift again to what the team leader is doing wrong or not at all, and this conversation will become a performance evaluation.

To me, these may be kinder statements than the original, but they are also flawed.

They assume that the negative gossip is true. Gossip may be an indicator of a difficulty, but assuming it is true is agreeing with the gossip without even trying to ascertain its accuracy. These statements jump to conclusions.

They shift the meaning away from the original implication that the team leader is not doing well at the job and make it difficult to address the issue. The problem will not be addressed easily if it is reframed away entirely. There is such a thing as being too kind.

They continue to use the pronoun “you,” and continued use of the pronoun continues to make the statements personal accusations. “I would like you to think about what you can do to encourage commitment from your team to work with you.” How can anyone participate in a thoughtful discussion without being defensive after a statement like this? And there is nothing collaborative so it feels like an accusation or an assignment.

These statements sound parental to me. “I would like you to . . .” That could just as easily have been followed by “clean up your room” as “think about what you can do to encourage . . . .”

Here's a suggested reframe that seems like a good start.

“There appears to be some conflict between your teammates and you. How do you think the conflict could be resolved? What can you do to resolve the conflict? What do you need your teammates to do to resolve the conflict?” The reframe is way too long and goes immediately to a process for resolution with no exploration, but at least the first sentence indicates that there is a possibility that that gossip is not all true. I’d change the first sentence to read, "I've been hearing that there might be some conflict among the team members." Then leave the rest of it out and just follow with, “Can we talk about that sometime?” That difficult pronoun is still there, too.

Perhaps the best reframe was, “Can you tell me how things are going with your team right now?” There is no unstated assumption; it begins impersonally; it is an appropriate question for a manager to ask; and it addresses the right issue. The pronoun is still there, but the effect is reduced. I might have asked, “How’s the team doing?” Direct without being accusative, maintains the focus of the concern, and does not include a single “you.” This approach also has the added advantage of being open-ended. The team leader’s answer might be consistent with what the manager wants to explore, but because the question is so open-ended, it might also raise some unexpected issues as well.

Here’s how I would reframe the original sentence if I had to say something about disagreement. First, make a neutral observation from a first person perspective: “I’ve been getting feedback that there may be some disagreement on the team right now.” Then offer an opportunity for exploration: “I want to be sure I have your input, so let’s set aside a few minutes in the next day or two to talk about what might be happening.” (That sentence took about eight tries before I stopped editing it.) Other neutral openings can be something like, “It’s come to my attention that . . .” or “Lately I’ve noticed that. . .” Notice that they all begin in the first person and present neutral information.

In this structure, using the conditional tense, “may be some disagreement . . . might be happening” implies an openness about the feedback and makes it clear that the feedback hasn’t been automatically accepted.

Assuring the team leader that this manager wants her input indicates respect.

Using the pronoun “let’s” indicates a collaborative approach.

Allowing the team leader to suggest a time to talk indicates that the team leader is not being expected to defend herself against an unstated accusation on the spot, but that a mutually agreeable time for conversation is being determined jointly.

There is only one use of the pronoun “you” (“your feedback”), so the statement does not feel like an accusation. The statement refers to “the team,” (not “your” team and who else’s would it be anyway?) and comparing “our” schedules. Originally that sentence read, “Let me know what your schedule is like over the next few days” and I changed it to the plural so that the statement remained collaborative.

Reframing is harder than it first appears, and none of these reframes are perfect. (I like the shortest one best.) To make it as easy as possible remember three basic rules:

Start with a neutral observation or a very general question.

Eliminate the pronoun “you” in all its forms so the statement is less personal and does not become an accusation.

Use the plural whenever possible so that a sense of collaboration is built.

Biography


Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation.

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Website: www.mariasimpson.com

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