Frames of Reference

Want to communicate more effectively?

I do. It is something that I have been trying to improve lately by employing simple strategies like asking more questions (rather than simply providing answers), constantly asking colleagues for advice, and having a peripheral sense of empathy.

Seeking advice is one easy way of establishing relationships in any environment. By seeking advice we communicate that we respect and admire others’ insights and expertise and subtly invite that person to make a commitment to us. It says to that person that you are open to different perspectives, are considered and that you create opportunities for others to contribute and to lead. I am by no means an expert but as I develop I am finding a combination of powerful and powerless communication techniques like hedges, tag questions and intensifiers are all great ways to earn respect and influence by inviting others into the conversation.

Adam Grant in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success explains three broad styles of interpersonal dealing: Taking, Matching, and Giving. Takers are those who try to take more than they give. Matchers are those who try to give and take equally for their own best interests. Givers are those who give more than they take. Grant states that “it’s possible to track the flows of energy through networks by rating interactions (between nodes on the network) on a scale from strongly de-energizing to strongly energizing.” This is true from my experience. Takers are like black holes that have a gravitational pull that others around them feel. Givers on the other hand inject light into a situation or organization by shifting their frame of reference to the recipients perspective. When we try and understand others’, we can make the mistake of staying within our own frame of reference and asking ourselves “How would I feel in this situation?” Switching reference frames requires us to ask instead “how would this other person feel?” This is a subtle but important shift.

I used to love explaining reference frames to students as a precursor to the study of Einstein’s Special Relativity. A reference frame is simply a framework that is used for the observation and mathematical description of physical phenomena and the formulation of physical laws, usually consisting of an observer, a coordinate system, and a clock that could assign times to positions. As part of that discussion I used to show the 1960 film below created by the Physical Sciences Study Committee featuring University Physics Professors Patterson Hume and Donald Ivey. It’s brilliant and explains why we need to have peripheral empathy and be able to escape our own reference frame when interacting with others.

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