Sometimes when a client is feeling stuck on a negative way of thinking about a situation or experience, I’ll ask, “How can you reframe that?”
When you reframe something, you look at events, emotions, and situation through a more positive lens. It’s not unlike what happens when you take a dingy albeit valuable landscape painting that you inherited from an elderly relative to a frame shop, and the craftspeople there transform it into a beautiful vista simply by putting it into a shiny new frame with a clean mat.
When you reframe an event or experience in your life, you look at with fresh perspective and see it with a renewed sense of possibility. While I was ruminating over this post, I came across the following meme on LinkedIn:
“Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being redirected to something better.” Shifting the interpretation from rejection to redirection is a superb example of reframing your thinking, and reframing is one of my best coaching tools.
One example was a client who had spent weeks pursuing a freelance contract for his new consulting firm. He had carefully estimated the project budget, crafted a proposal, and honed his pitch for the potential employer. Then the company decided that they did not have the resources to pursue the project after all and cancelled their Request for Proposals. My client was devastated. Not only was he disappointed in the loss of potential income, but he was taking it as a personal failure, a reflection on his inability to convincingly sell himself and his services. He also felt like he had wasted all the time he had invested in the client, and that disappointment was robbing him of the motivation and confidence to go out and pitch his work to other potential clients.
As we talked through the situation, I asked him if he could reframe the situation a little. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: What did you learn in this process?
Him: That starting a consulting firm is hard.
Me: You already knew that; this experience just brought it home. What else did you learn?
Him: How to budget for my time and how to write a proposal. I didn’t have a clue how to do that when I started.
Me: Good. Those are essential skills for your business. So the time you spent learning wasn’t wasted. What else?
Him: I got more comfortable presenting myself and my work to a potential employer.
Me: OK, so this experience was valuable practice for pitching to the next client.
By the end of the conversation, the client was ready to set a goal for submitting a proposal to another client—and a few weeks later, he got the contract.
Reframing is not magical thinking. It’s simply shifting your viewpoint so that you can see the situation in a different context or focus on a different aspect of it. Sometimes it’s hard to reframe on your own because you get so stuck in seeing things from the negative perspective. That’s where a coach or a trusted friend can help.
You can reframe almost any situation that makes you feel unmotivated and stuck. Another client had been hired by a non-profit to develop some new initiatives. After spending a few months assessing the new initiative, the context in which the organization was working, and the needs, my client had concluded that the non-profit needed someone with an entirely different skillset than her own to take the initiative in a different direction. She had written a fine report, which she shared with me, laying out her excellent research and her careful strategic thinking about the right direction for the organization. Still, she was beating up on herself. She said something like, “I feel flighty. I took this job, and now I’m saying ‘I’m not the right person for it,’ and suggesting that I leave the organization.”
To help her reframe I reminded her about the results of the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment that she had completed when we started our work together. The Clifton questionnaire showed that one of the main strengths that she employed in her life and work was her ability to think strategically. She was good at studying the situation, brainstorming multiple potential solutions or action plans, and identifying the best alternative. In this case, saying, “I don’t have the skillset to accomplish your goal” was not flighty; it was a realistic assessment of the situation.
You can even reframe anxiety—that excessive and persistent worry about a situation that makes your heart speed up, your breath become rapid and shallow, your armpits perspire, and your stomach feel queasy. I’m not talking about intense and chronic anxiety that becomes all-consuming and interferes with all aspects of daily living. If you’re feeling that level of anxiety, I encourage you to talk with a mental health professional or your physician.
But for everyday anxieties, studies by Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, suggest that reframing that anxiety as excitement can be helpful. The physical sensations of excitement are often pretty similar to those of anxiety, and both are aroused states which kick your brain into high gear, so that your reasoning skills and decision-making abilities are enhanced. But reframing anxiety as excitement shifts you to a more positive mindset and enables you to harness the energy created by the physiological response.
For instance, I love to travel, but I’m also an anxious traveler. Once I get to my destination, I’m fine, but in the days leading up to my departure, I often worry incessantly things big and small: What if I break my leg the day before the trip and we have to cancel? What if my alarm doesn’t go off and I miss my flight and then I can’t make my connections? What if our luggage gets lost between here and there, and we have no clothing for two weeks? What if there’s a terrorist attack and borders are closed and we get stuck abroad for weeks? What if I have a car accident on the trip?
None of these are irrational fears: these things do happen sometimes. But if I dwell on them in the days leading up to my trip, the fear can exhaust me and destroy my ability to have a good time. I’m learning to reframe. When I catch my mind spinning out of control, I do two things. First, I remind myself that things have gone wrong on previous trips and that I have coped. For example, my luggage has been lost before, but it caught up with me, and until then, I bought a new toothbrush and washed my underwear in the sink and did not die because I went a day or two with no change of clothes. The second thing I do is reframe: I remind myself that I am excited about all the things I’m going to see and do at my destination. I consciously redirect my attention from the bad thing that might happen to the good things I expect to happen. I take out my guidebooks and my itinerary to remind myself why I’m going to all this trouble in the first place. It’s a little like putting a new frame on an old picture. It gives me a new perspective.
How about you? What do you need to reframe your thinking about? How have you reframed for a more positive outlook in the past?
To read Michael Kaeding’s blog post that accompanied the meme on rejection and redirection, click here.