Conversational frames

Framing your messages is a great habit to develop. Last week, we talked about prefacing your messages with a WIFM, What’s In it for Me? A WIFM is a way to frame your communications.

All you need to do is think about what you want from the conversation and how you want it to proceed. Then summarise your aim as a frame.

Here are some examples of framing statements:

  • Sam, I need to speak with you about the presentation of next week’s report; do you have some time now?
  • Sandy, would you mind running through how I should do this? I’ve only done it once and I want to make sure I get it right.
  • I’m running really late; would you give me a hand with this please?
  • Gill, can I ask you something?



Conversational frames function just like frames of a painting. A frame encloses a painting and draws attention to its subject. So does a conversational frame; it encloses our communication and draws attention to the subject. Conversational frames let people know what to expect and what to listen for, saving time and confusion. They guide our discussion towards our goal. They make people less likely to ‘mis-hear’ us and their minds less likely to wander.
In conversations, as in the rest of life, good and quickly seldom meet. Rather than rush into a conversation, pause and think it through first and introduce it with a friendly frame.  



Why don’t they LISTEN?!

Towards the end of last year, a leader-manager, let’s call him Stanley, complained that however many times he gave an instruction and whatever format he put it in, no one paid any attention.

He was doing two things right: repetition and using multiple channels. Both help a message sink and and stay there. So what was he doing wrong?

We chatted for a while and four important elements of communication seemed to be missing from many of his messages.

  1. He didn’t give people a reason to listen – the tried and true WIFM, What’s In it For Me?
  2. He worded his messages in a way that meant something to him, but sadly, didn’t resonate with most of his team members.


  3. He focused more on problems and what was wrong than on solutions.
  4. His messages came across as orders rather than suggestions or helpful information.

The fact that Stanley is ‘old school’ and most of his team members were born in the 1980s and later didn’t help.

Stanley decided to make a belated New Year’s Resolution. He drew up the following checklist and committed to reviewing his important messages against it before speaking or putting them in writing.

___ Have I provided a reason to listen?

___ Have I used language and examples that my team can relate to?

___ Is my message positive?

___ Is my message helpful?

Quick, easy and powerful. Does it work? I caught up with Stanley the other day, and he says it does!

How to sound more credible at meetings

Every leader-manager needs to sound credible – to their reports, their peers and their own manager. What do you sound like when you speak? When you speak too quickly or with a high pitch, you can sound overly excited, childish, nervous, or just plain inept.

There’s a good physiological reason for this: When you’re nervous, the flight-fight-freeze response kicks in and you tense up. You feel the need to rush as your muscles tense for battle or a quick getaway and your vocal cords follow suit. Tightened vocal cords (or vocal folds to be precise) raise your pitch. They can even cause you to squeak rather than speak!

A deeper voice sounds more confident and competent. Take your time, breathe deeply and relax your neck muscles. This opens up your diaphragm and relaxes your vocal cords, which lowers your pitch and slows you down. Don’t settle for a mechanical, low-pitched monotonous drone, though. That just puts people to sleep. Aim for an interesting mix of vocal pitch and speed.

Another way your voice can shatter your credibility is finishing sentences on an upward note, as if you’re asking a question. This can make you sound uncertain and immature. A 70 per cent falling inflection helps you sound confident and convincing.

When you have something to contribute to a meeting or discussion, gather your thoughts. Think about the two or three main points you want to make; you can even jot down as a few key words. When you’ve thought through how you can best contribute, you don’t need to worry about forgetting what you want to say or becoming tongue-tied.

Word your contributions clearly, objectively and positively, and  in a way that won’t create argument or antagonism. Clearly means replacing weasel words that diminish your points with powerful and specific words that strengthen your points: instead of ‘I think‘ say ‘I believe‘ or ‘I know’, for instance. Objectively means replacing emotionally-laden words and phrases with factual words and phrases: instead of ‘We were pathetic’ say ‘Our presentation let us down’. Positively means replacing negative points with positive ones: instead of saying what you want to avoid, say what you want to achieve.

In formal meetings, catch the eye of the person chairing the meeting and wait for acknowledgement before speaking. In informal meetings and discussions, wait for a lull, sit up straight and speak up in a clear voice that everyone can hear. Keep the floor by prefacing your contribution with a short goal: ‘I have three points to make that I believe can help us here’.

Don’t deny people the benefit of your point of view, your ideas and your knowledge. Speak up in a way that can make them sit up and listen!

Building a culture of trust

Do you want to build a culture of trust in your team? Here are eight neuroscience-backed ways to do just that. The eight behaviours below  aren’t just common sense; they also release neurochemicals in peoples’ brains that build trust and other good things like engagement, job satisfaction, loyalty, motivation and productivity.

  1. Say thank you and show your appreciation. This works best just after someone reaches a goal or does something you want them to keep doing.
  2. Set clear and specific goals that are challenging, but make sure they’re achievable. This generates moderate stress that releases neurochemicals that help people focus and that strengthen social connections, helping people work well together.
  3. Let people work in their own way as much as possible. Knowing how to do a job and deciding how best to get on with it is motivating and promotes innovation. Bringing the team together to use the learning cycle in an after action review often leads to continuous improvement, too.
  4. When you can, let people select the projects they work on. That way, they work on what interests and inspires them most, leading to job satisfaction and high performance.
  5. Keep people informed about the organisation’s goals and strategies. Unless people know they’re working for an organisation that has its act together, their stress levels increase and their ability to work as a team deteriorates.
  6. Build relationships with your team and help them build relationships with each other. They don’t all need to be best friends, but they need to know each other as individuals to work well together and they need to care enough about each other that they don’t want to let their teammates down.
  7. Help team members develop personally and professionally. The best performers are well-rounded people, so show consideration for their work-life balance or work-life blending and don’t work people so hard that they have no time for personal rest, recreation and reflection.
  8. Don’t pretend you know everything. Ask for help when you need it; it’s a sign of a secure leader whose main aim is to perform well and help their team perform well.

As you can see, these eight behaviours aren’t difficult or even particularly time consuming. You can find out more in the Jan-Feb 2017 Harvard Business Review in an article by Paul Zak called ‘The neuroscience of trust’.

What! You don’t agree with me?

When you see a discussion as an argument, that’s likely what you’ll have. Seeing it as a competition doesn’t get you very far, either – you’ll hold fast to your opinion and end up ignoring what the other person believes or wants.

The next time you sense a conflict or disagreement approaching, shift your thinking from ‘argument’ to ‘agreement’. How can we best reach agreement on this? How can we come to a shared understanding? What can I learn from this different perspective? What can I do so that we can work this out? That mindset opens the way to a productive conversation.

Once you’ve adjusted your mindset, set your sights on something you both want. That way, you’re not arguing but figuring out how to reach a shared goal. You’re not focusing on what’s coming between you — you’re on the same side. Sit next to, not opposite, the other person so you’re literally on the same side, too. And use the word ‘we’ a lot to show you’re in this together.

Effective communication begins inside, with your mindsets.

Listening and silence

Have you ever noticed that the words ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ are made up of the same letters? They might look the same in a lot of other ways, too, but they’re really very different.

How do you listen when you’re fascinated with what someone is saying? I bet it’s quite different to the way you listen with ‘half an ear’ when you’re not interested, but just being polite and keeping silent.

When you simply keep silent, you end up listening like a stunned mullet and that’s guaranteed to bring a conversation to a pretty rapid halt. Genuine listening involves your heart, your eyes and your mind, as well as your ears.

That’s hard work and it doesn’t come easily to most people. But it’s worth making the effort because real listening, as opposed to silence, does three precious things for you:

  1. It helps you build better relationships.
  2. It helps you find out what’s really going on and what people really think, which makes you more influential and persuasive.
  3. Listening carefully to someone obliges them to listen carefully to you: the better you listen, the more others listen to you.

So how can you listen, as opposed to just keeping silent? Here are three essentials:

  1. Put your own thoughts on hold, even when you think you have something more important to say and even when you disagree with what the other person is saying. Try to crawl inside their mind and see matters from their point of view. Listen for their thinking and the logic and feelings behind it.
  2. Get your body language right. As they say, when your eyes wander, your mind wanders, too. Without facing the other person directly, which can be interpreted as confrontational, orient your body to them at roughly right angles and don’t fidget.
  3. Show you’re listening with a few nods and grunts – ‘Ahhh’, ‘Uhum’ , ‘Mmmm’ …

With a bit of practice, anyone can be a not-so-silent listener.

Tips for all leaders

We’ve been looking at some ideas to keep you afloat while you find your feet if you’re a new leader. I thought we’d look at tips for all leader-managers in this post. Since a huge part of your job no doubt entails communication, the tips are in the form of eight positive principles for cooperative communication. And here they are.

  1. Soften the ‘you’s’ or turn them into ‘I’s’ to avoid sounding pushy and dictatorial. So instead of saying ‘You’ll have to …’ say ‘Could you …’ or ‘Would you be able to …’ or ‘What I need is …’.
  2. Turn your cant’s into cans. Instead of ‘We can’t do that until next week’ say ‘We’ll be able to do that next week’.
  3. Take responsibility. It’s tempting to push blame onto someone else or to an unfortunate turn of events or an unexpected situation. But we’re not kids anymore, are we? When something goes wrong, saying ‘Here’s what I can do to fix that’ is much better.
  4. Say what you want, not what you don’t want. Rather than ‘Don’t race through this and make mistakes’ try ‘Think this through – take it one step at a time.’
  5. Offer improvement suggestions. When you’re tempted to say ‘That was OK but …’ or ‘That works except …’ try ‘If you do X, that will make it perfect!’
  6. Turn complaints into requests. ‘You never …’ becomes ‘How about…?’
  7. Share information. Rather than argue or accuse, you can offer your point of view and explain how you see a situation.
  8. Leave doors open. That way, a flat out ‘No’ can become a ‘Yes, as soon as …’.

These principles not only strengthen your working relationships, they also make you a great role model for your team and set the tone for a positive working climate.