Our ability to quickly thin slice information can keep us alive by allowing our minds to make rapid assessments. But although this ability to spot patterns unconsciously has evolved as a valuable gift to communication, it has a dark side.
If our context (vantage point) is limited, the conclusions we make could be misleading. This may put us into unnecessary conflict or outrage because we simply don’t pause to gather finer distinctions. Perhaps this is why we react so quickly to social media posts before all the details have been exposed.
A while back, I saw a creative advertisement that illustrated this tendency beautifully.
A set of still photographs were arranged in an action sequence. They depicted a burly man with a shaved head, wearing denims and boots. In the first frame, he runs towards an elderly woman; in the second frame, he knocks her violently into the street; in the third frame, he makes his escape.
Our thin slice assessment? Another thug terrorizing the elderly.
However, when we widen the angle a bit we get a broader perspective.
On the following page were wide-angle shots of the same scene: the woman walks under a scaffolding where a cement mixer is about to topple off. The man sees what’s happening and runs towards her, pushing her clear. A moment later, the cement mixer crashes to the ground where she had been standing. The ‘thug’ has saved her life.
Changing the frame changed the context of the man’s actions. What was obviously criminal became heroic.
I was chatting with a prospective client who was seeking a workshop for staff that didn’t focus on labelling behaviours as good or bad. Navigating difficult people is certainly a valuable topic, but when we start deciding if someone’s behaviours are good or bad, we shrink the context and miss valuable information.
In reality, every behaviour is useful in the right context.
For any behaviour, no matter how bizarre, it’s possible to find a context where it’s valuable. When behaviours are presented in broader context, the actions suddenly make more sense.
So how do you learn to broaden the context?
First, identify a complaint, either about yourself or someone else, with this structure:
“I’m too [X]” or “She’s too [Y].” (eg. “I’m too impatient,” “He’s too lazy,” “She’s too noisy.”)
Then ask yourself: “In what contexts would the characteristic being complained about have value?”
Then, come up with several answers to this question and craft it into a reframed context. Some simplistic examples:
- “I’m too impatient.” … “I bet you’re quick-thinking in an emergency.”
- “She’s too noisy.” … “She’d be good to have around if we were trying to scare bears away.”
- “He’s too lazy.” … “We’ve had so many problems with ‘fools rushing in,’ it’s good to have someone who’s not going to react first and think later.”
Give yourself the freedom to be creative so your brain gets the pattern of what you’re doing. Come up with reframes for any complaints you (or others) have about yourself. This can be a lot of fun when you brainstorm with someone else. (You can say, “I’m too [X],” then they generate reframes for the behaviour.)
Once you get the hang of it, start looking for opportunities to use context reframing each day (start with low-risk ones). One of the most powerful ways to use reframing is when people have objections (whether you’re selling a product, a service, an idea or yourself). When you reframe someone’s objection, you can remove or alter its power.
I once heard this objection: “I’m worried. What if I invest my limited dollars on training my people and then they leave?” The response: “Even worse, what if you don’t train your people and they stay?”
When you find a way to change the context of someone’s objection, it alters the way it’s perceived. This can be an extremely effective way to eliminate objections entirely.
So rather than look at labelling behaviours as good or bad, take a little time and list the objections you get most frequently. Generate several contextual reframes for each one. Then look forward with a sense of anticipation to the next time someone offers that objection so you can use it.
When you change the context in which a behaviour occurs, the behaviour itself is transformed.
Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.
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