Reframing - it’s really useful; except when it isn’t

The art of reframing is a management, leadership and coaching toolkit staple, but how effective is it?

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The art of reframing is a management, leadership and coaching toolkit staple, but how effective is it? 

Reframing is the ability to show someone an alternative more useful perspective or ‘frame’ on a problem situation. It should be useful for that person, not just make you or them feel better.

The increasing problem we are seeing in today’s ‘make everything rosy’ world, is the dressing up of unpleasant experiences as OK or playing down the negative impact of events and behaviour. Some things just need to be dealt with - not reframed away.

Instead of being your go to for helping people see things differently consider carefully whether you should reframe at all. The main problems with reframing are:

  • It is used as a backstop approach to make ‘negative’ perspectives ‘positive’
  • Empathy is often more useful for the other person than a reframe
  • In many situations a person needs to take action to improve a situation
  • Clumsy and over use of reframing breaks rapport, damages relationships and can destroy someone’s self esteem

We have experienced numerous situations where the overuse of reframing has not only been unhelpful, it was annoying. I moved into my recently renovated house, the final few days were stressful and moving in really wasn’t a joyous experience with much left to do. I was bombarded with ‘well at least you’re in’ by many well intentioned friends. Well intentioned and really annoying. 

What I needed was a bit of empathy and understanding, rather than told something was good when it very clearly wasn’t. If my self esteem had been low, I would have sucked up these comments and doubted my own feelings. Reframing inappropriately can unintentionally impact someone’s self esteem. Be careful.

Reframing is only helpful to someone when:

  • It respects their current feelings and experience
  • Empathy and understanding is not a better approach
  • There is nothing they can actively do to improve their current situation

Reframing can change people’s lives and give them a ‘I’ve never looked at it that way before’ experience that is empowering and useful. It is a powerful tool when used with skill and at the right time for the right reason. Before reaching for the reframe consider whether ‘I get that’ or ‘I feel for you’ is kinder, more respectful and more useful.

Karen Meager

UKCP Psychotherapist & Supervisor NLP Master Trainer Author of Time Mastery and Real Leaders for the Real World


Go to the profile of Pamela Gawler-Wright
about 4 years ago

Really good to keep reminding of this, Karen. Perhaps one of the problems with reframing as a "technique" is also that it is often taught as language patterning only, without the concepts of cognitive psychology and the structure of organising our subjective experience into frames that informed the later popular development of "reframing" as an intervention. As you say, if it comes from wanting the person to "be more positive" it can be very misplaced, especially in a therapeutic context.