The Biggest Mistake You Can Make In Any Conversation

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Have you ever tried to fix a friend’s problem, when what they really wanted was to vent and get some sympathy? Have you ever sought advice and only gotten sympathy? Have you ever tried to resolve an argument while your partner is still ramping up with new accusations and complaints? In all these cases, the problem is that you haven’t agreed on the frame of the conversation.

This is such a broad problem that analysing it takes some very abstract language. The LessWrong essay “Noticing Frame Differences” takes some time to settle into, and might take a couple of readings to understand. But once it clicks, you’ll have a helpful mental model, one that will help you during an unproductive or frustrating conversation.

How frames work

A frame, says LessWrong writer Raemon, is a way of “seeing, thinking and/or communicating.” There are countless frames, but some major ones we use in communication are:

  • Solving a problem

  • Sharing feelings

  • Asserting power

  • Making trades

  • Just shooting the shit

Every person, in every interaction, is using a frame. (Even if the frame is “fill the silence until the elevator reaches your stop.”) Sometimes everyone in an interaction is using the same frame:

  • You and a store clerk are both making a transaction and engaging in a single line of pleasantries.

  • You and your co-workers are complaining about management.

  • You’re watching a play, so you accept your role as silent audience.

Just because you’re both using the same frame doesn’t mean the interaction is pleasant. Sometimes you’re both using the same negative frame:

  • You’re in a shouting match where you and your partner air all your grievances.

  • You’re trading snide remarks with your work nemesis.

  • You and your aeroplane seat partner are fighting over the armrest.

You understand what the other person is trying to do—you’re just trying to do it harder.

How frames get mismatched

When the people in a conversation have different frames, it’s harder for either of them to accomplish their goals—whether that goal is “negotiate a treaty” or “have fun at a party.” For example:

  • You want to brainstorm practical ideas for a specific project with a limited budget, but your colleagues want to come up with ambitious ideas for new projects.

  • You want to gossip about a friend you actually like, but your partner wants to address what she sees as deep flaws in your friendship.

  • You want to catch up with a friend, but he wants to prove he’s more accomplished than you.

  • You want to express an idea, but an internet commenter wants to nitpick your grammar.

  • You want to explain your presidential legislative agenda, but your opponent wants to score cheap points.

  • You want to sit quietly in the theatre, but the comedy show includes audience participation, and now the actors are trying to drag you onstage.

  • You want to do anything, anything at all, as a woman, but a man wants to hit on you.

When the parties have a different frame, both parties will have trouble reaching their conversational goals—though one party might be more successful than the other. The conversation can’t go in a productive direction until everyone gets into the same frame.

Raemon lists more examples, which can range from obvious frame differences to subtle ones—even ones inside the frames named above. Reading them all will help you better understand and recognise frame differences.

How to solve a frame difference

To get into the same frame, first you have to notice the mismatch. Neither I nor Raemon have a quick fix for this. But pay attention when you or your conversational partner seem frustrated or like you’re wasting time. Pay attention when you have what feels like a productive conversation, but then none of the results of that conversation materialise. And pay attention to relationships that are feeling less and less fulfilling.

You also need to recognise whether all conversational partners are coming to this conversation in good faith. Ideally, everyone wants to be in the same frame. You’re generally on the same “team” and you have some common goals.

In these cases, when the frames aren’t matched, you can accept and adopt their frame, ask them to adopt yours, or agree to work in both frames, simultaneously or sequentially. (When you’re in a work meeting planning a project but also gossiping a little, you’re sharing two frames simultaneously.)

This works within competitive frameworks too: agreeing to play Fortnite without hacks, or following Robert’s Rules of Order at the town council meeting. It especially helps to find an external set of rules that neither of you invented. If the frames slip out of alignment, you can appeal to that authority.

But sometimes your partner doesn’t care if you match their frame. The whole conversation is a solo exercise that you happen to be present for. (That’s pretty common when, say, someone just wants to take out their anger on you, or inappropriately come onto you.) Sometimes you realise you’re the one who doesn’t care about matching frames.

In these bad-faith cases, it’s often smart to disengage, regroup, and consider re-engaging under more explicitly defined terms. In the long run, you should try to avoid as many bad-faith frame mismatches as you can—and when you can’t avoid them, to call them out every time. Bad-faith frames are less effective when they’re explicitly acknowledged.

Examining frames is a useful way to take a mental step back from your interactions, to take stock in what you’re accomplishing when you talk to your friends, co-workers, bosses, family, enemies. To figure out why you feel like you’re beating your head against a wall. Because no one’s a wall. You’re just two people bashing your heads into each other. Which, in my experience, is rarely an ideal interaction.


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