Business communication expert

Understand Their Frame of Reference to Get Your Point Across


Recently, I called a property-tax reduction firm about protesting my property taxes. The form downloaded from their website requires homeowners to list renovations done on their home, along with accompanying photos and receipts.

I was puzzled. Didn’t renovations INCREASE rather than decrease the value of a home? How would knowing about renovations help the firm build a case to protest and LOWER my taxes?

The agent assured me that knowing about my previous renovation would definitely lower my taxes.

Maybe he didn’t understand my question? So I repeated it.

The agent gave me the same answer: “Yes, list the renovation, and include photos and receipts. That will lower your taxes.”

Surely, there was a language barrier. (He was a second-language speaker.) Maybe an analogy would clarify my question. So I posed this to him: “Let’s say you buy a car with just the standard equipment. Then you add upgrades like better tires, better stereo system, and better seats. That increases the car’s value. That’s what we’re talking about with my home. How will listing my renovations help you lower my taxes?

“Oh, it will,” he said. “Definitely, it will.  Just list all the renovations on our form, and our agent will get back to you.”

Still puzzled, I hung up the phone. A few minutes later I had to call back with another question. This time, an assistant answered. As she pulled up my record, she asked: “By the way, you were a victim of Hurricane Harvey, right?”

I was not. But her question suddenly made all things about the earlier conversation crystal clear.

Located in Houston, her firm had been taking calls all week from Houston homeowners about protesting their tax increases. Her boss assumed that if I had renovated because of water damage, it was hurricane-related and that my taxes could be lowered accordingly.

Walk-away reminder: ALWAYS understand the other person’s frame of reference before you try to get your point across.

How to Find the Other Person’s Frame of Reference

Step 1: Research Your Audience, Listener, or Reader

Know as much about the other person and group as you can. What’s their background? Biases? Viewpoint on your topic, problem, or issue? What’s their primary interest in what you have to say or propose? Will they likely be pleased, shocked, skeptical? How can you adapt your message to minimize a negative reaction and get a fair hearing?


Step 2: Consider the Timing

Consider both the physical and emotional timing. Are your listeners too physically drained to pay attention? Are they too angry, sad, tired, or disgusted to give your idea a fair hearing? Would catching them on a happier or at least “normal” day or week mean a warmer reception?

Step 3: Start With Their Questions

When in doubt about what your listeners are thinking, start by asking them. Toss out your topic, and ask what they already know and think about what they’ve heard through the grapevine. Often they’re more than willing to give you very clearly their frame of reference. That’s where you start to bridge the gap to where you’d like to take them in building your case toward a new conclusion.  


Step 4: Choose Your Words Carefully

Country-western music star Trace Adkins made famous the line: “… them there’s fightin’ words.” Be sure to side-step terms and phrases that unnecessarily bring up a negative mind set—simply because your audience has a different frame of reference.

Even what you assume “neutral” may be negative if you forget this simple principle. Case in point: My husband and I invited a couple of good friends over for a get-together: “This weekend’s going to be nice and warm. You want to come over for a cook-out.” The husband laughed and responded: “Doesn’t sound good to me after being in an attic all week.” (He’s running a crew in a remodel job.)

Whether you call it knowing someone’s “frame of reference” or “where he’s coming from,” that tidbit of information can mean the difference between “getting through” and getting frustrated.

Learn more ways to help determine where all parties are coming from in a conversation in Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire and Get Things DoneDownload an excerpt by clicking here or on the image below.


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