“I don’t like those trousers on you” – a lesson in reframing

Here’s an exercise for you. If someone says to you, “I don’t like those trousers on you”. What might they mean?

Stop reading now and have a think. Jot down as many meanings as you can on a sheet of paper. I’ve shared some of my thoughts at the end of the article.

This short statement of words can only mean on thing, right?

Long and short of it, if you did the exercise, the answer is no. You’ll see that they are very open to interpretation.

What is said versus what we hear

When we say things – or hear things for that matter – we tend to believe that we are talking (or hearing) with 100% clarity. And we aren’t. There is almost always a difference between what is transmitted and what is received.

Sometimes those transmitter/receiver differences are so small that it doesn’t matter, but as often, those interpretations do matter, especially in matters of the heart and in business.

I was reflecting on a real life conversation I had with a team lead when I was MD of an agency.

A pay rise? You’ve barely been here a hot minute

A relatively new member of staff approached the head of one of my teams and asked for a pay rise. The team leader was a bit irked and came to ask me for an opinion.

I’ll paraphrase:

“He’s only been with the company ten months and he’s asked for a pay rise! He’s even gone and found market comparables for goodness sake! The digital media space is highly competitive, and if you look around you’ll always find people who are getting paid more. I thought he was doing great but this is a surprise move”.

Rather than agree and nod along, I asked him to take some time to consider the team members’ request.

I asked:

“Is there a way to reframe this? Another way to look at what has happened that might indicate a different motivation?”. After some ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ his one conclusion was that perhaps there was some merit in the salary benchmarking because salaries were steepling at the time, but that he still believed it to be a little pushy.  

It still didn’t feel like he’d quite dug deep enough, so I pushed him a little more to consider so other plausible things:

  • What if this is someone who really buys into the open culture you promote in your team?
  • Our company values promote transparency and openness between the all our staff – then isn’t this the sort of discussion you’d hope staff would feel happy having?
  • Is this showing that the individual is so confident in your belief in the company values they feel they can raise what is a probably difficult question for them?
  • What about that benchmarking? That’s someone bringing you evidence to an argument – not just having a whine to a colleague behind your back.
  • I have heard you encourage this kind of informed, direct and intelligent attitude before, so have they.
  • Maybe they have taken your praise and encouragement at face value and believe that you have been encouraging them to think this way?

In other words;

Rather than a naïve request of a pushy newbie, this could be the perfect example of a team member fully embracing the very values and open management style you have signed up to and that I know you believe in.

If it is, surely that should be thrilling and not irritating.

It is so common for people to find a singular interpretation of what appears to be a clear statement. When those comments or feedback are nuanced, then there are whole new levels around which we can misunderstand one another.

Top tip – try reframing

Next time you find yourself getting irritated about a comment someone made, run a quick reframing exercise in your head:

Could there be another interpretation?

Might the implications of that be far different to the one you have just come to?

And what should you do with that knowledge.

The answer is almost always to seek clarification where you can. Yes, ask.

Some answers to the exercise at the start – you’ll have more of your own. What could they mean?

“I don’t like those trousers on you”

What could it mean?

  • The trousers are unflattering
  • Have you put on weight?
  • You have terrible taste
  • The trousers are faulty
  • We have different tastes
  • They don’t look good on you because I wish they were on me
  • They remind me of my ex (who is horrible)
  • They could be questioning your judgement
    or could it be…
  • I’d like to have them
  • They are your work trousers and it means the weekend is over

This exercise comes from a video about receiving feedback (albeit focussing on receiving not transmitting). I refer to it in another article, but here’s the full one hour video if you can’t wait.

If this sort of article on reframing intrigues you, please do consider signing up to my bi weekly email, Rambling On.



Search the whole etc Playbook...

We have 100's of articles to help you with leadership, growth, talent and running a better business.

Agency Founders Surgery - free 1 to 1.

If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.