When it comes to being resilient, the ability to reframe is an essential skill. Reframing is the ability to look at a situation or circumstance in a new way, giving it a more positive or insightful spin.
"At the simplest level, it’s changing perspectives—changing the way you look at something or trying to understand whatever you’re seeing or involved in. I’ve been seeing this one way; let me change to a different way of thinking about it," says Lee G. Bolman, a Brookline, Massachusetts-based scholar, consultant, and author of the recently released How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing.
How do you know when you’re engaging in healthy reframing versus deluding yourself, or rationalizing bad behavior? Stay on the right track with these five steps:
If a situation in your life is holding you back, then it’s important to step back and look at the bigger picture, says Jennifer Howard, a New York-based psychotherapist and author of Your Ultimate Life Plan: How to Deeply Transform Your Everyday Life and Create Changes that Last.
Is there something about the situation that you’re not seeing clearly? How else can you look at it? You can ruminate over how traumatic being fired is, but you can also practice appreciating it as the catalyst for a better job or career, or the end of a situation that made you unhappy. You can let financial difficulties defeat you, or look at it as a reason to take action by reining in spending, and finding new sources of income.
"You have to work on being self-aware," Howard says. "Was the situation that your boss really doesn’t like you, or were you not stepping up? Reframing is dangerous when it starts blaming others, instead of looking at the situation honestly."
Sometimes, we get stuck in negative or destructive thoughts because we believe the most negative interpretation of events to be the truth. Bolman says we live in a world of VUCA—full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Typically, we can tell the world many different stories, and all of them have elements of truth. But rarely is there one absolute truth for everyone, he says.
"The question is does [the reframed story] work for me?" he asks. "Does it work for the constituents or the people with whom I’m relating?"
That doesn’t mean that we can entirely make up a story and call it true. Here is where feelings and intuition play a role in the reframing process.
Bolman encourages people to seek out the truth that feels right to them and allows them to move on. You shift from viewing an event or circumstance as a terrible thing that ruined your life, which has no utility and keeps you mired in self-destruction—or you ask what you can learn from it, or how you can build on it and create something new. Your gut is going to tell you when you’ve hit upon the right way to reframe because it will help you move past your current situation and give you hope for something better.
Howard agrees. She says if you’re trying to ignore your feelings, you may be trying to justify something that you know is a bad situation. If you’re having trouble believing your reframe because you’re uncomfortable thinking positively, then that’s one thing. But if you’re having trouble because your gut is telling you that the story isn’t true, then it’s time to revisit the story and see what’s really going on.
Talking with others about how the situation can be reframed may also be a good idea, Bolman says. Some people are naturally good at thinking positively, or looking for the value in any situation. Those are the types of people who can help you reframe in a positive, productive way. Or seek out professional coaches or therapists who can help you move beyond thought patterns that don’t serve you.
Bolman says that successful reframing requires having good stories which meet multiple criteria:
- It should help you how to live effectively and feel good about yourself.
- It should also help you achieve the goals you want to accomplish.
- It should work for you and those around you.
Good stories aren’t self-destructive, self-defeating, or contradictory to common sense.
"I think the test of a story’s frame is how well it works for you and whoever else is involved in the circumstances—such as your partner or spouse, or the group you manage in an organization," Bolman says. "How well does it work for the success of the unit, and for the well-being of the people?"