Frames of Reference

Yesterday, the U. S. Department of Labor released its latest labor statistics. An online community in which I participate had a conversation about the unemployment rate, which was reported at 6.2 percent. Several people told stories of their difficulty finding jobs. One person offered some historical information, and said that from a historical perspective, "6% unemployment is really considered pretty danged good." Another replied, "I only deal in what I know from my own experience... Probably a quarter of the people i know are out of work... In this case, historical perspective is just worthless."

These comments got me thinking about we create meaning. We make meaning of facts by placing the facts in some context, some frame of reference. Our choice of frame both generates and constrains the kinds of meanings we will make. An unemployment rate of 6.2 percent looks pretty danged good or pretty danged bad, depending on what frame of reference we place it in. The meanings we make of a fact may be determined more by our frame of reference than by the fact itself.

How do we choose the frames of reference by which we interpret what happens around us (or even within us)? As we interpret the latest unemployment rate, is sixty years of history an appropriate frame of reference? Is "a quarter of the people I know" appropriate? What would lead us to choose one frame over the other? What makes one frame more appropriate than another? Is it possible, or useful, to accept both frames, along with the conflicting meanings they generate? I'd like to hear your thoughts about these questions.

Notice that "resistance" is a frame of reference. I often begin my resistance workshops with a brief exercise. People pair up, and I give one person in each pair a simple action to perform. Until about a year ago, I would next ask the people who did the simple action, "How many of you got some form of resistance?" Almost everyone would say they got resistance.

I stopped asking that question. The question, and the context in which I ask it (a workshop about resistance) creates a very strong "resistance" frame of reference. It lures people into thinking about their partner's responses as resistance. Given that a big part of my workshops is to reframe resistance as information, setting up a strong frame of "resistance" feels like something of a swindle.

On the other hand, I also want people to experience the meaning-creating power of that "resistance" frame of reference. Maybe I'll put the question back in. What do you think?

Changing the frame of reference can often be a great way to solve a "problem." Earlier, I described a conversation I had with Kenneth about a possible consulting assignment to conduct a risk assessment for his project. At the end of our conversation, Kenneth decided not to hire me. A few weeks later, I was talking to Jerry Weinberg about that conversation, and feeling discouraged that I hadn't landed the job. After listening to my story, Jerry said, "It seems to me that Kenneth took your advice."

Wow! Jerry's simple reframing made all the difference. Instead of seeing the conversation as a failure (I didn't get the job), I now saw it as a success (the client took my advice, probably saving himself a ton of money and aggravation). Same facts. Different frame of reference. Different meaning.

My earlier article about walking to the horizon gives another example of the power of choosing a frame of reference. When I'm trying to improve a process, progress can seem pretty depressing in comparison to where I want to go. If instead I compare my progress to where I started, my progress usually looks "pretty danged good."

Several years ago, on the day I moved to California, I was carjacked at gunpoint in the parking lot of the apartment complex that I was moving into. For a half hour, two carjackers drove me around in my car, one driving, the other sitting behind me, holding a gun to the back of my head. I won't go into the details, but I was, as you can imagine, terrified.

A few days later, I was walking across a parking lot to a store. As a woman walked out of the store in my direction, I began to panic and shake. Then I began to panic about my panicking, fearing that I would forever be terrified of people in parking lots.

At that moment, some very wise part of me asked, "How do you feel about being afraid?" After a few seconds, I realized that, at that moment, I felt good about being afraid. My fear didn't mean that I would always be afraid in parking lots. It meant that, for a while, it would be healthy for me to be more attentive to my surroundings. That reframe was a big step in my recovery.

(That wise question — how do I feel about what I feel — comes from Virginia Satir's Ingredients of an Interaction, which you can read more about in my article "Untangling Communication." I call the question The Acceptance Question.)

Reframing is often a simple way to solve a problem. But when you're stuck in the middle of a problem, that can be the hardest time to think of more helpful frames of reference. Fortunately, other people may not be stuck in the same frame as you, and may be able to offer ideas for reframing the problem. That's one of the many values of friends and colleagues. And consultants (Hi, my name is Dale!).

Experiment: For the next week, notice the frames of reference that people offer to make meaning of facts. Which frames of reference do you accept? Which do you reject? How do you decide whether to accept or reject a frame of reference?

Experiment: How does the frame of "resistance" affect the way you interpret people's responses to your ideas? What are two other frames of reference that you could use? What meanings does each frame encourage?

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