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Conversational Agility: Reframing, Refocusing, Redirecting

January 21, 2015


Years ago I was asked to work with a high-profile entertainment company in Hollywood. The culture was rife with destructive politics and distrust, and the owners were not in sync. Over several months, I assessed the leaders, diagnosed the nature of their challenges, and saw that distrust would destroy company unless leadership put the real issues on the table. The company’s directors decided to take 25 executives out of town for a retreat to do what they had avoided for years—talk straight with one another.


As the first morning session got underway, I could sense fear in the room. People were avoiding eye contact and sitting apart from those with whom they had issues. The steady buzz of nervous small talk was awkward and tense.


On a flipchart I drew an arc, which I called the ARC of Engagement (The Gauge). At the far left I wrote Resistor, then Skeptic, followed by Wait-and-see in the middle; to the right I wrote Experimentor, and to the far right Co-creator. I told them, “I’d like you each to identify where you are on this gauge.” Silence. Then I heard a voice in the back say, “I’m skeptical; I don’t believe that we’ll make any headway over the next few days.” People began to speak openly about how they were feeling.


After two days, the leadership team had many powerful insights and ideas about how to transform their culture. Over the next few years, this entertainment company became the darling of Hollywood studios. In a few years, the company’s revenues increased more than 20-fold! It also earned a reputation as a great place to work, and was attracting new talent. Every executive in attendance that day remembers it as the beginning of a journey into trust that laid the foundation for success moving forward.


After that weekend I interviewed the attendees and captured their feelings. The COO noted: “Going in, there was a lot of trepidation. Someone said they thought they were being sent away to a growth camp. People were afraid that if they didn’t grow, they were going to be fired. If we had a chance to opt out, everyone would have. The real fear was that if we participated and somehow failed, we would be out of a job. Before that weekend I used to compare us to a submarine, all submerged. But today we can discuss honestly things we would never discuss before and resolve conflicts.”


By using the Conversational Dashboard, they learned to see where people were in the conversation—Protect and Primitive Brain or Partner and Executive Brain. As they learned to map the interaction dynamics, they could see which interactions disabled conversations and which ones enabled healthy conversations. Once they understood how to have productive, quality conversations, the team took control of their destiny.



They also learned to reframe, refocus, and redirect their conversations to move from a protective stance to a partnering one. These 3 Rs can help you interrupt a conversational pattern that is not working and let you access Level III wisdom in the moment, even in the face of conflict or the negative power of emotional triggers.


Navigating to New Places: the 3 Rs

When people are Resistors or Skeptics, in a closed state of mind, you need to ask them a discovery question—something like, “What would it take for you to feel more engaged, or to want to co-create?” Asking discovery questions is simple way of getting people to move toward more co-creative ways of engaging in conversations. You may also need to transform the conversational space by drawing upon transformative conversational skills such as reframing, refocusing, and redirecting.


1. Reframing. Reframing takes a difficult situation and turns it into an opportunity for finding trust and common ground with someone. Conversations have space, and if the

conversational space feels full of conflict, people won’t step into it with you. If it feels safe, they will—and that is the role of reframing. In reframing, you give the person you are talking with an opportunity to mentally take a break and think in a new way. Reframing can change the context and give new meaning to a situation.


For example, a person might say, “I don’t feel good about myself because I make so many mistakes.” (The person may be in a fear state.)

Reframing: “Those who make mistakes are taking risks—and that is how we learn. People who take risks and make mistakes are more likely to find the best new ways to do things. Edison made 900 light bulbs before finding one that worked.” (You are elevating the person into a trusting state.)


2. Refocusing. Refocusing enables you to elevate people out of the place where they are stuck and point them toward another part of a larger topic where they can see new connections. Certain parts of the brain are keenly designed by nature to help us focus, refocus, and even defocus. The reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain, which emanates out of the brain stem, is an energy system that enables us to guide our minds and focus our intention. When we do so, our brain defocuses on specific things and focuses instead on others. The RAS is an intentional system.


Consider this comment “I am annoyed about how much time you spend on small projects that don’t go anywhere.  You keep reworking them over and over and over.” (The person may be stuck in a worry state and fear not getting it right.)

Refocusing: “You seem to care a lot about these projects. They must be very important to you. I’d love for you to apply your care about your work to a number of new projects rather than just a few small ones. This will allow you to expand your frame of reference. My guess is you can bring your expertise to some challenging initiatives.” (You are elevating the person’s self-confidence, encouraging him to take more risks.)

3. Redirecting. Redirecting helps a person move from a place of being stuck and emotionally bound to a place where she can see new opportunities. This is a great trust builder because it communicates: “I care enough about you to help you see things in a new light,” rather than communicating a judgment that implies, “You Stupid Idiot.”

Take, for example, the following comment: “There is no way we can do anything other than what we did.” (Stuck in the past.)

Redirecting: “Last week I worked with someone who faced similar challenges. Like you, he thought it was a dead end. Here is what he did. This may give you a new way to look at things moving forward.” (Providing trusted insights to alternatives.)


When you notice that you are in a protective mode on the Conversational

Dashboard, use reframing, refocusing, and redirecting to move from the Protect side of the arc to the Partner side. When people are Resisters or Skeptics, they are either in a fear state or have apprehensions. They hang out to wait and see and they watch what others do.


You can nudge them into Experimenter using reframing, refocusing, and redirecting. As you learn these skills, you can help others create a mind shift from their lower brain—the reptilian brain—to their higher brain—the executive brain. Using the Conversational Dashboard (ARC of Engagement, you can refocus your conversations to elevate the communication abilities of everyone involved, even when dealing with difficult subjects. 


And as you develop conversational awareness, you begin to get in front of potential conversational collisions. During a conversation, you recognize when you need to change your navigational pattern, thus building your conversational agility.


About the author


Judith E. Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and the Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is an Organizational Anthropologist and the author of the best selling book Conversational Intelligence (Bibliomotion, 2013), as well as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies.;

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