I wasn’t planning to go to this talk until I heard his pitch in the Flash Forward session; something in that pitch reminded me of a Gerald Weinberg / AYE approach to personal interaction, so I went. And I’m very glad I went: certainly my favorite talk of this GDC, but perhaps one of my favorite talks ever.

And that’s despite the fact that I missed the first ten minutes or so, because I had a very long lunch with Michael Abbott! About which I have no regrets: that lunch was both quite pleasant and sorely needed for personal reasons. Fortunately, I came into the talk just at the end of the intro (as far as I can tell); judging from the slide I saw, the intro probably said something about (awareness of and conscious use of) frames being important but able to be used for good or evil, but I could easily be wrong. As a partial substitute for the intro, I’ll quote the talk’s abstract:

This talk is about leading well by doing two things: communicating effectively and maintaining perspective. Conversations obviously bear meaning on many levels beyond explicit words; here we’ll talk about frames, the assumptions and context we bring to our interactions. Skillful framing is worth the practice, as it can inspire, motivate and energize, help you navigate the shores of professional power dynamics and strengthen relationships of all kinds.

Of course, it only does those things if you want it to, which brings us to intention, the motivation behind your every action. It’s deceptively easy to believe we’re acting for one reason, often a noble one, when our true intention is something else. When we do that, our behavior often ends up causing harm and sabotaging our true goals. We’ll talk about the work involved in staying aware of your intention and steering it in a direction that’ll yield the right results.

(Edit: Brian Sharp was kind enough to leave a comment with a summary of the part of the talk that I missed.)


The place where I came in was a section of practical tips. These are based on archetypes of situations that he’s collected over the years: so he’ll run into situations that remind him of these archetypes, and that will give him a suggestion as to how people are interpreting the situation and how to proceed to improve communication.

Archetype #1: Collaboration

Specifically cross-discipline collaboration, where you’re working with a member of a different team because there’s something you need to get done together.

First, keep in mind that both of you are trying to solve constraints. Framing the interaction this way helps because it leads to thinking in terms of “you and me versus the problem” instead of “you versus me”.

Still, the water can get that rough. To help navigate that roughness, he brought in an idea from Deborah Tannen: you can plot people’s views of their relationship with somebody else on a two-dimentional chart, where one axis is hierarchy vs. equality and the other is closeness vs. distance. Your view (conscious or not) of where the two of you are on the chart is a framing; you then make moves (again, conscious or not) trying to get the relationship to a place on the chart that you’d prefer. Problems arise when you see the other person as moving you around on the chart in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.

In cross-team collaboration, he has a strong preference for moving quite far towards the equality side of that axis. But anywhere on the closeness/distance axis could well be acceptable, depending on how he views his relationship with the other person. And, in this situation, that latter axis is more likely to create mismatches in how the two of you are framing the situation: so if one person sees unexpected/unwelcome closeness, then they might act more coldly than they otherwise would to move the interaction to a more distant place on that axis. Conversely, if one person sees unexpected distance, then they might act unusually friendly/chummy.

Again, he sees any place on the closeness/distance axis as acceptable; relationship damage comes from misalignment in how the two of you reed your actual and desired positions on the chart, multiplied by the length of time that you let that misalignment fester. So try to read the situation accurately at the start, and to respond quickly to changes.

(Reflection: thinking about this has helped illuminate some of my own interactions. I can see the tension arising from people changing their mind about where the two of us should be on the closeness/distance axis, and working to change that positioning; I can also see different people as having a wider, narrower, or simply more mobile band of desired positions on that axis, leading to additional opportunities to surprises arising from framing mismatches.)

Archetype #2: Hierarchy

This is about collaboration between people at different levels of the org chart.

Hierarchy reinforces perception: if you hire somebody as a junior team member, you’ll see him as junior. Perception reinforces hierarchy: if you see him as junior, you’ll be less likely to give him advanced work, and hence give him fewer opportunities to move up the org chart. We’re all prone to confirmation bias; this loop reinforces that.

To become more senior, you need to do more senior work, of course. But that alone isn’t enough. People near you (your team members, your immediate supervisor) already know what you’re doing; senior people who are more distant from you have no idea of what you’re doing, however. It would be nice if they then had no feeling about you (since, after all, they have no high-quality data about you!), but in practice they have a hierarchy-mediated opinion of you, and will need active convincing to think otherwise.

So, to change a more senior person’s perception, you have to change that person’s framing. Most people accept the frames they’re given; and, in particular, both you and he will tend to go with his frame.

For example, say a more senior person sends you an email like this: “Sounds like things are running behind a bit. I need you to send me the current schedule so I can figure out how it impacts my team.” This sounds reasonable enough: it’s not rude, it’s not an active power play, it’s a request for relevant information. But implicit in it is a power dynamic: his view is accepted as correct (that’s the first sentence), and he can tell you what to do (that’s the second sentence).

If you want to change the relationship that the two of you have, you need to change his frame, e.g. to one where he treats you as a peer. The first step is to convince yourself, to internalize that frame yourself. The second step is to act like a peer would act, to project that frame outward. When doing this, you might even act a little patronizing.

So, one possible response to the above e-mail is something along the lines of “that’s funny, I was about to ask you the same thing. I’d be glad to make some time to help you understand this side of things. Maybe we can grab coffee this afternoon?” This actively works to change the power dynamic, to project both of you as peers: his view isn’t accepted as correct, he’s not the only person who can ask for information, and you’re suggesting a meeting on more level footing.

This is hard. And people reject frames that are wildly different from their own. For example, don’t treat the CEO as a buddy!

(Reflection: interesting thinking about this one in terms of my own experience. I have a fairly strong preference for sticking my nose in lots of places, for believing that I can contribute to any part of the code base and that I’ll be able to say something worth listening to when discussing, say, team organization. I don’t generally see this as an explicit ploy to change my position in the hierarchy (and, indeed, I’m not a big fan of hierarchy in general, I’m perfectly happy for everybody on the team to stick their nose all over the place!); but, in hierarchical contexts, I am projecting a view of myself as not on the bottom of the hierarchy, at the very least.)

Archetype #3: Caring

Many people claim to care, but act like they care about your work result or care that you’ll be happy so you don’t quit. In contrast, caring is caring about you. As frames, these views are mutually exclusive: one or the other is what is important at any given time. You don’t want the latter to be perceived as the former.

To this end, carve out a separate space for personal caring. If you’ve just been working on a project with a colleague who is frustrated, expressing caring right then will be interpreted as caring about work. So put a bit of distance, both temporally and physically, so you can express personal caring and be interpreted as doing such.

This is why it’s important for a manager to have one-on-ones with the people who report to him/her. But don’t have them be status updates, other than as a jump starter for further conversation: talk about the other person as a person.

(Reflection: definitely useful to keep in mind. When I’ve held one-on-ones in the past, I’ve generally left them fairly open. (At least I think I have, it’s been two and a half years.) Which is good in that it at least doesn’t convey an active view that I see them as status updates or that I see the other person through a purely instrumental lens, but I should be more aware of the options and subtexts here.)


That’s archetypes, techniques that you can use. Now on to wisdom. You may fear that the above is overanalyzing and/or prone to being used for scheming; he believes, however, that this sort of analysis tends to lead towards goodness.

He then talked for a while about working in his mom’s workshop, working with the tools there. This taught him respect (and a bit of fear) for the tools; respect (and even love) for the wood. Each piece of wood was different; he was collaborating with the wood.

It takes craft to make art. Communication is a craft. But: in communication, unlike other crafts/arts, we are the medium. So it’s scary to use these communication tools: they can work on us in powerful, unpleasant ways.

Fear is good, but it shouldn’t stop us: fear itself is communication. It lets us know that we should be careful, but it doesn’t mean that the tools or the tool users are evil.

What about people who do use it for evil? When he sees people like that, it breaks his heart. They had opportunity to use these tools for such beauty, and they aren’t. A meditation he likes to use in such circumstances: “when we do not know happiness, and fill its void with pleasure, we suffer”.

Communication teaches us the true nature of people; the more we know their true nature, the more we love it. We’re scared of that, because we don’t want to know our true nature: we’re afraid of being vulnerable, we’d like to pretend that we’re purely rational.

Update: The video and slides of the talk are available for free in the GDC Vault.

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