I’ve offered a few posts recently on the craft and qualities of language in advancing purposeful work. Torbert et al’s “four parts of speech” described the different colors on the palette of a well-crafted conversation. Schein’s four forms of inquiry added detail and depth to one of those types of speech. But to me, the most essential and the most often missing aspect of any productive conversation is the frame.
Torbert et al describe “framing” as “explicitly stating what the purpose is for the present occasion, what the dilemma is that everyone is at the meeting to resolve, what assumptions you think are shared or not shared (but need to be tested out loud to be sure).” In framing a conversation, you state explicitly why you are gathered together, how the conversation fits within the context of your larger work, what baseline assumption you bring (or believe you bring), and how you plan to proceed toward what’s next.
To some, framing a meeting may seem redundant and cumbersome (“We all know why we’re talking today, it’s obvious, why waste time?”). But once you try it, you’re likely to discover that you don’t all know why you’re talking (or you each know it differently), and that aligning everyone at the beginning of a conversation saves all sorts of wandering and wondering along the way. You may also notice that it’s really difficult to state the frame clearly and specifically, which often means that you don’t know why or how you’re talking, either.
As we’ve seen through previous posts, there’s a LOT going on in a conversation, often among people who don’t approach conversation as a craft to be learned and honed over time. Framing reduces some of the cognitive load that can distract participants from the purpose and process at hand.
To be clear, framing, itself, means many things to many disciplines — and it’s not always pure and positive. “Framing” in sociology and political studies involves the social construction of a social phenomenon — how groups make or mediate meaning. In some cases, framing can be a manipulative tool of power or persuasion. Calling a complex bundle of liberty-limiting laws the “Patriot Act,” for example, frames the discussion as binary and value-specific rather than nuanced and value-complex (if you support it, you’re a patriot, if you don’t…well then). But the kind of framing I mean here is the intentional, explicit, and inquisitive form that happens in purposeful group discussion — in meetings or elsewhere.
A favorite quote by G.K. Chesterton claims that “art is limitation, the essence of every picture is the frame.” Framing can also feel limiting and stilted, until you get used to it. But the small effort and minor awkwardness can actually create the positive space in which you and your colleagues do your real work.