Saturday, October 16, 2010


Every day, without a second thought, each of us makes statements that are vague, that lack context or frame of reference.

How you doing? Okay. How'bout you?

How'd your day go? It was rough, really rough.

Did you like the concert? It was totally awesome!

We use phrases that have no meaning whatsoever like okay and fine; we use superlatives in describing even mundane experiences. We qualify our superlatives with "really" and "totally". The net is to use phrases that sound like something but is in the end mean nothing.

I Really Want to Play Guitar
Last night, talking with friends whom I haven't seen in a while, we got onto the topic of wanting. My friend Clay, who is literally a world class athlete (he placed third nationally in the US swimming butterfly), talked about how he really wanted to play guitar, but just couldn't. With our recent discussion of Calibrating Desire and knowing Clay's diligence in training for athletic events, it occurred to me that he obviously didn't want to play guitar that much. So I said, "What do you mean by 'really want'? How many hours a day have you been trying to play the guitar?"

We danced around what is or isn't wanting and Clay fairly successfully avoided ever saying that he didn't really want to play guitar. Still, I woke up thinking about how casually we toss off phrases that are completely misleading regarding our actual intent and level of desire. It's not a bad or good thing; it's just a confusing thing: a confusing thing with little consequence because no one is listening anyway.

Or perhaps, since everyone so casually says things like, "Someday, I really want to...", we all know that no one ever really means it. It's just a wrapper that we place around whim and fancy to make them more substantial like adding flour or corn starch to turkey drippings to transform them into gravy.

Perhaps those of us who listen and would like to help others achieve their wants if we can are just out of the loop and need to catch up with the times.

Yeah, right!

Bamboozle Free
Since I often bamboozle myself with my cluelessness and my poor calibration of not only statements of desire, but of any of the throwaway statements that masquerade as something substantial, I've come up with a system of calibration. It's really easy to implement and takes little time, although not everyone will be up for it.

The system basically works like this:
  1. Someone makes a statement that has a vaguely-defined or context-free qualifier, e.g., I worked really hard today or I saw this totally awesome musician playing in Harvard Square this afternoon.

  2. Assuming you want to know what she means by really hard or totally awesome, begin calibrating the statement by establishing a frame of reference with two questions:
    • One that establishes the upper extreme, e.g., of everyone you've ever heard, who is the most totally awesome musician? and,
    • One that establishes the lower extreme e.g., of everyone you've ever heard, who is the least totally awesome musician or conversely, who sucks most?

  3. Finally, place the current subject within the frame of reference established in step two by asking a quantifying question such as: Given your most totally awesome musician is a ten and your least totally awesome musician is a one, on a scale of one to ten how would you rate the musician you saw performing in Harvard Square today?

That's it!

Now all this presupposes that both you and the speaker have any interest in the semantic of the conversation. However, if you do, creating frames of reference is a great way to begin calibrating your response to what's being said. Should I stop and ask more questions? Should I be looking for a way to help? Is this something that merits further attention? Should I get my butt down to Harvard Square and here this guy?

You might not want to do framing in every conversation. You might save it for the moments where someone says, This is really important! or I really need to know or I really want to learn to play guitar. On second thought, it might be fun to do it every time the opportunity emerges, or at least for a day, just to see how often the opportunity does present itself and how often the statements feel the same way once framed.

Happy Framing Saturday!


  1. I teach adolescents- their every utterance is peppered with meaningless superlatives and empty adjectives. As a teacher, my job is to listen and respond,often with an follow-up question to help guide their own thought process. I can't wait to try out your framing strategy. It provides a simple, yet respectful way of requesting clarity of thought and precise communication. As a scientist, I have a great appreciation of both.

  2. Hey Michele,
    I'd love to hear about how it goes, what you learn, what you modify, what works and what doesn't. Would be great for you to post some stories of your endeavors with adolescents.


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