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Changing Your Frame

Early in my career I worked for a decision analysis consulting company in Menlo Park called Strategic Decisions Group. We competed with the big guys like BCG, Bain and McKinsey for top level projects to lead Fortune 500 companies in making big decisions. Big decisions like, which is the better investment, $100 million of upgrades to this power plant, or sell it and buy another company to produce electricity. It was fascinating work and shaped who I am.

As part of this work, we had a process for how to work through making and implementing decisions. Choosing the “frame” for the decision was a critical, early step. Choosing the frame meant deciding how you wanted to look at the problem. For example, with the earlier question, the frame could be “what’s the best way to spend $100 million?” or “what’s the most environmentally-friendly way to service our customers?” or “what’s the best choice given expected upcoming changes in regulation?” As you can see, the frame of the decision is extremely important because it can point to a particular answer or at least tip the scales strongly in one direction or another.

Not only is this a problem for companies, it’s a problem for individuals. Particularly in the wake of change, people can get trapped in their frames. Being trapped in a particular frame is unpleasant at best and can be terrifically painful. Often changing your frame can make a remarkable difference about what the problem is, how big it is, and what to do about it.

Where do frames come from? Everyone starts establishing their individual frames at birth. Your family shapes your frame, by showing you how to do things, how to analyze situations, how to handle joy and despair. Your friends, teachers and mentors shape your frames, by showing you how they evaluate and handle situations. Literature, the internet, and movies can shape your frame.

Frames change over the course of your life. I’m a Mom, and it’s been a joy watching my son grow. He is 18 now, and his frames are very different from his youth and childhood. He went through a period of abusing drugs and alcohol, and with help, realized that using wasn’t good for him. His frame changed and he is now on a solid path.

Frames are helpful. By creating a certain way of looking at a situation, or a pattern of what to do when something happens, frames can provide straightforward, doable processes. For example, if every time an organization receives a resume, they approach it the same way, there is a consistent way of evaluating candidates. Everyone understands how the process works. The organization can speak with one voice.

Where trouble often arises, is when something comes up and your default frame doesn’t provide a good path forward. In this case you may need something to “shake up” your frame and explore other ways of looking at your situation. For example, what do you do if your parent starts acting weird or not taking care of him / herself? It’s likely you haven’t had to face this situation before. You don’t have an existing frame for it.

Talking to a friend, family member, or a colleague can be a great way to open your mind to re-frame your problem. Often, people close to you have inside information about the issue. They know you, and your background, your experience, and your values. This can be a strength and a weakness. Sometimes talking to the people in my circle doesn’t provide me a truly different view. It’s not enough of a shake-up of my frame to see things differently.

Therapists, who are outside professionals, can help. Part of a therapist’s job is to question the client’s frame. As an example, I recently worked with a client who was having issues with someone she worked with. In my client’s words, she was trying to “avoid” the colleague. My client felt uneasy with “avoiding.” She felt like by avoiding her colleague she wasn’t facing the situation and was not being direct enough.

My client had spoken directly to her colleague about the situation, but the colleague didn’t want to hear the feedback and had not changed her approach or behavior. As the therapist, I worked with my client to view her actions not as avoidance but as boundary setting. We changed the frame. My client was not avoiding the situation, she had brought it up and stated her position. This new frame - boundary setting - shifted my client’s perspective from thinking she was not taking a positive action to viewing her action as being protective of herself. By incorporating work in hypnosis to solidify this frame, my client was able to feel much better about her actions and got along better with her colleague.

If you are facing a tough situation, define your frame. Figure out if the frame you are using is the best frame for you. Unsure? Ask a friend, trusted family member, colleague or therapist and see if a little external reframing can help. Remember, sometimes changing your frame can make a remarkable difference.

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