One of the most important services that I provide to my performance coaching clients is “reframing”. Reframing is a very interesting and scientifically validated approach to altering our emotions about something. It essentially takes a specific set of facts and places them inside of a different “story”. One of my favorite examples is the following passage in Mark Twain’s classic Tom Sawyer. In the story, Tom has been charged with whitewashing the fence and Ben is chiding him with the fact that Tom won’t be able to go swimming since he is “stuck” working:
Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:
“What do you call work?”
“Why ain’t that work?”
Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:
“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”
“Oh, come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
That put the thing in a new light….
It isn’t long before Ben is pleading with Tom for the brush!
We run across reframing in our lives all the time. When we are selling, we use it to address “objections”. When politicians position themselves and address their adversaries they reframe their past performance. And advertisers reframe products for us. Do you remember when pork was fatty, salty and unhealthy? Now, it’s “the other white meat”: healthy, lean and inexpensive.
Reframing can be a powerful tool in crafting our personal experience of the world, our relationships and those areas of life where we struggle with our own perceived weaknesses and challenges. The idea is that our personal experience of life can be divided into two domains. The first domain is the universe of facts. These facts are free of any emotional charge. They are just what happened. They are reality. The other domain is our minds. In our minds we interpret facts. We attribute to them meanings, consequences, narrative structures and judgments. All of our emotional responses to life are really responses to our interpretations of reality — to the narrative structures in which we hold them — not to reality itself.
That means that given any set of facts or events, we can build an innumerable number of narrative structures to hold the same facts, and with each narrative structure we can elicit different sets of consequences, meanings and emotional responses.
In my own life, I used a powerful reframing technique to quit smoking twenty five years ago. Instead of trying to quit, using lozenges or weaning myself off of smokes, I told myself that from the moment I threw out my last pack, I WAS a non-smoker. Then, every time I thought about smoking or had the feeling that I wanted a cigarette, I internally asked myself why I was having such a crazy thought. After all, I was a non-smoker. How bizarre that I should want to smoke! It worked, and I have been smoke-free since then.
Think about the most challenging issue you have in your work or your life right now. Are you too busy? Do you need to start working out? Are you struggling with getting yourself to make sales calls, or do your books? You can take any set of facts and create a new story for them. Here are some examples:
Lost a client?
Great! Now you have the capacity to find a bigger client. Isn’t that great?
Haven’t been to the gym in two months?
Perfect. Now, you will get in shape super-fast and lose weight faster because your body isn’t “used to” that extra calorie burn.
Getting lots of no’s on the phone.
Excellent. Each of those non-clients has done you a favor and kept you from wasting time calling them over and over. If only all non-clients would save you the time of chasing them by saying no right away.
It sounds a bit like a mere trick of language when summarized like this. But our brains can’t differentiate between when we are thinking thoughts that “come naturally” versus thinking new, invented stories about our circumstances. The brain interprets and responds to whatever we think, and our feelings, experiences and emotions are then synced to those newly crafted stories as we consider them. So if we change our stories we have changed our thoughts, and that changes our experience. Try it for yourself. Reframe a specific challenge and then keep truing up your thinking to the more empowering story every time you notice your thoughts backsliding to your reflexive story about those facts. It’s a super-powerful tool to alter your life.