Reframing: Change the Story, Change the Result

Reframing is a terrific tool for making new meaning quickly and easily, as well as for editing your belief system in the process.

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We form our own reality based on visual, auditory, and kinesthetic cues. These cues recall our beliefs about the world and ourselves (our identity), which results in either feeling good or feeling bad. If you’re on a sales team that feels bad, chances are you won’t be achieving your quota because your energy will be low as well your motivation and creativity. Is there anything you can do right now to feel better and be more productive?

Stuff happens, and sometimes we need to do a quick “pattern-interrupt” to pause our default and choose a better-feeling alternative. Remember, it is not what happens that matters but rather, what it means that matters. Change the meaning, change the feeling. We need to make more helpful meaning.

Reframing is a terrific tool for making new meaning quickly and easily, as well as for editing your belief system in the process. By formal definition, Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts, and emotions to find more useful alternatives. It is a practical and valuable tool to shift perception, including your perception of yourself or others’ perceptions of themselves.

Think of reframing as putting on a different pair of glasses. What would you see if you put on a pair of sunglasses with a heavy tint when you were in a dark room? You would see shadows and dark forms you couldn’t identify. What would happen when you took off those glasses? You may see the most beautiful room in the world. When you switch your glasses, what you see changes. Reframing, mentally and linguistically, does the same thing. It changes the story you tell yourself about what happens.

Harvard researchers proved a while back that the stories we tell ourselves shape our world.1 The good news is that we can also create new stories—the decisions we’ve made about ourselves, our abilities, and the world—and change our experience. Here are two examples.

In Business

Initial story: It’s really hard getting a job fresh out of college these days. The market is crowded, and overqualified people are competing for every single job. No wonder I’m unemployed—it’s tough.

Reframe: It’s awesome that there are a lot of people job hunting right now because it gives a person the opportunity to really bring his or her “A Game” to stand out. I’m sending my résumé in creative ways to get an interview, I’m doing more research than I ever have done before to prepare for interviews, and then I’m following up after the interviews using different methods. I am learning a ton!

See how the meaning shifts from defeat and deciding that job hunting will be hard (which means it will be because the universe is an exquisite mirror) to a sense of power, can-do, creativity, and agility?

In Personal Life

Initial story: I was a girl in a household of boys. My brothers and parents wanted another boy, so I was perpetually left out and labeled as a disappointment. I’ve never been good enough.

Reframe: I grew up in the perfect family to learn to see and honor my unique value. I was given great opportunities to be independent and forge my path in life. I also learned to be self-reliant, which has made me strong and fearless.

See how the meaning she is making shifts from disempowering to empowering? You can also reframe all sorts of scenarios daily. Here’s how it works.

Imagine your spouse has just made the morning coffee. While scooping the grounds into the coffee machine, he or she has spilled a considerable amount on the counter. He or she doesn’t notice this and moves on to the next item in the morning routine. You could focus on the “bad” behavior, complain about the mess, start a fight, and have no coffee or affection that morning. Or you could practice reframing in one of at least two ways:

Context reframing: 

These reframes work on the principle that every behavior is useful in some context. So when we change the context, we also change the meaning we make about another’s behavior. In this spilled coffee example, you could use a context reframe as follows: “Your spilling coffee means we are so much more privileged than 80 percent of the world who can’t afford to have coffee with breakfast!” This is exaggerated, yes, but it illustrates how drastically the meaning can change when you expand and change the context.

Content reframing: 

Content reframes work by changing the actual content of the meaning you give the behavior. In the spilled coffee example, a content reframe might be, “Your spilling coffee doesn’t mean you made a mess. It just means you were rushing to make sure I was taken care of.”

The behavior and the facts of the matter are the same; we’ve just altered our self-talk to make different meaning from the coffee grounds on the counter. And after all, at the end of the day, do you care more about some coffee grounds or about your relationship? In the same way, which do you care more about in business: success as a team or blame and shame?


  1. See Also see

Excerpt from POWER YOUR TRIBE: Create Resilient Teams in Turbulent Times by Christine Comaford, published by McGraw-Hill. © Smart Tribes Institute, LLC Reprinted with permission.

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