If you were asked to describe yourself and your job, what words would you choose? The language we use to talk about ourselves–both inside our own heads and to others–can shape how we perceive our lives, contributions, and approach to the world. I’ve learned that firsthand working at Facebook, where finding a solution often comes down to reframing the problem–specifically in terms of the words we use to describe what we do.
“Framing” simply means the lens you adopt (knowingly or not) to understand a given situation. It’s a mental habit our brains automatically perform. And the types of lenses we resort to most depend on our experiences, strengths, biases, personalities, and more. But that doesn’t mean we have no control whatsoever over our framing.
That’s where reframing comes in. Research suggests that intentionally choosing to see a situation differently can give us greater control over the outcome. Here are a few ways I’ve applied that principle successfully during my time at Facebook.
Words, Words, Words
Reframing can feel pretty abstract until you think about how it works at the level of language. A subtle change in the words you use can affect how you or the person you’re talking to feels about whatever those words characterize. Think about a colleague who’s typically described as “aggressive.” Chances are that same person can be more generously termed “committed,” “direct,” or “passionate.”
Consider the subtle (or not so subtle) shades of mood and meaning in these pairs of terms:
- “self-promotion” versus “communication”
- “political” versus “influential”
- “selling” versus “educating”
If you can make a mental habit out of testing out a wider range of words to describe your experiences and challenges, you may discover a wider range of approaches toward them than you’d expect. These are three times that’s worked for me:
1. Talking About Inclusion
I recently wrote an article about lessons I’ve learned in Silicon Valley. I asked someone I respect to review it before publishing it, and they cautioned me against implying that I needed to assimilate in order to succeed.
For many Asian-Americans like me, the word “assimilation” carries the stigma of shedding your identity to fit into American society, and selling out your heritage in the process. I personally don’t see it that way, but I realize others’ mental frames may give them ample reason to. My colleague’s feedback gave me pause to consider how the lens I applied to my own experience may not be the same as someone else’s.
At first, this was uncomfortable; I suddenly worried that I was betraying myself and my heritage. Yet after thinking it over, I realized that for me, anyway, the word “assimilation” applied a negative frame to an experience I prefer to think of as “adapting.” One is about erasing your heritage, and the other is about learning, growing, and forging a new one. Both words can be used to describe the same thing, but each carries a much different meaning based on the association brought to it.
But in order to have a truly inclusive conversation about diversity in general and immigration in particular–both with my colleagues at Facebook and with the wider world–I needed to recognize that both of those frames, among others, are valid means of understanding similar experiences.
2. Fighting Imposter Syndrome
Throughout my career I’ve led teams tasked with building tech products with which I haven’t always been personally familiar beforehand. Rather than framing it as lacking in expertise, I’ve chosen to see that as an opportunity to learn.
This is arguably the simplest tactic for combatting imposter syndrome. In fact, there’s freedom in seeing yourself as a student when you feel outside your comfort zone. Building great products is often less about experience and more about the ability to test, learn, and iterate. Framing challenges as a beginner lets you explore them in new ways without getting trapped in a fixed way of thinking.
It’s crucial, too, for managing differences of opinion. One thing we try to do at Facebook is to allow everyone a seat at the table. If you can’t do that, you’re undercutting the true value of diversity on your team. As a manager, I’ve realized that cultivating diverse perspectives starts with me; the moment I can reframe feeling like an impostor as feeling like a learner, I can help others do the same so they can voice their ideas freely, too.
3. Getting Comfortable With “Self-Promotion”
Someone asked me recently for advice on how she could improve the self-evaluation of her work for the performance cycle. I suggested that she use this same brain hack–by reframing the context and impact of the work she was doing.
She replied, “But I’m not good at self-promotion.” I stopped her right there. If she thought about her self-review as promoting herself, then she risked downplaying her impact and not doing it justice. I advised her to instead focus on educating her manager about her impact. That small difference–just by using a new word to apply a different lens–changed her approach to the problem, letting her move from a “selfish” frame toward a more altruistic one.
It’s easy to let negative self-talk get in your way. So the next time you hear something framed negatively, take a moment to think about a more positive way to describe it. That can make a huge difference in what you actually decide to do about it.
Deb Liu is Facebook’s VP of marketplace and a cofounder of Women in Product.