Framing is about categorising information. The category that you put information into determines the experience of that information. Frames are basically perception filters. You can think of them as being like your personal assumptions about things.
For example, if criticism fits into the category of personal attack and rejection for you then the next time you receive negative feedback you may experience it as an attack even if that is not the intent. When you categorise actions or words into a particular box, that means all of your related experiences will be dependent on what box you have put them into.
People are constantly analysing what goes on around them and putting behaviours and words into mental boxes based on their personal assumptions. The world then becomes categorised based on each individual’s frames (assumptions). Perhaps you showed up late for dinner with a friend because you lost track of time. Your friend may categorise this to mean that you don’t care about the friendship. This is a frame that someone has about a particular action and your actions are going to be viewed and evaluated through that frame.
These mental categories are different for everyone. You may not agree with your friend’s frame that being late is equivalent to not caring, but by engaging in an argument with your friend about the interpretation of your actions, you have become caught in the frame and have inadvertently validated the assumption.
In order to avoid getting caught in someone else’s frame, you need to ask yourself what is being assumed in the conversation or interaction? What must be true in the other person’s mind for them to be having the experience they are having? Consider what you have done and what meaning the other person is assigning to your actions. Is that meaning true for you?
When you understand frames, you can begin to manage them. If you forget something, someone may frame this as a sign that you don’t care. In order to avoid this frame, you can ask the other person if they are assuming that your forgetfulness means that you don’t care? Then correct that assessment by explaining the true cause of your forgetfulness. The key is not to get caught in the story; speak to the context of the situation. Voice your respect for the other person without agreeing that the detail of what you have done fits their meaning.
Another way to manage frames is by pre-framing. Performance reviews are a necessary part of the business environment, but they can often be painful experiences for both the giver and the receiver. If the person who is being reviewed frames feedback as an attack, they are going see a performance review as a personal attack. In order to prevent this, you can pre-frame the situation by explaining what you’ll be saying and why you’re saying it. By pre-framing what you are about to do or say, you prevent assumptions by telling someone in advance what category your words or behaviours should fit into.
In the event where someone already has a frame set, you can reframe the assumption and reset the meaning of the frame. The simplest way to do this is to say, “I hear that you evaluated what I said to mean that, but it doesn’t. This is what it means.” Another consideration is to ask yourself what the frame would mean if it were reversed. Take our tardiness example and ask the person, “If you think my being late means I don’t care about you, does that mean when you are late, you don’t care about me?” This usually exposes generalised thinking. By reflecting it back, you can help the other person see that the frame is not true.
Most important concept in framing is called frame intelligence, which leads to growth. As you develop your frame intelligence, when someone says something you’ll be able to see the assumptions in what is being said even if inferred assumptions are not being voiced. The big question to ask is, “What must be true in this person’s mind for him to be saying or doing what he is doing and do I agree with that assumption?” If you don’t agree with the assumption, it doesn’t make sense to get caught in an argument that requires that assumption to be true. When you are able to identify an incorrect frame and not engage with it you are on the path to frame intelligence.