UNDERSTANDING AND USING THE SKILL OF REFRAMING AS A COACHING SKILL
By Jan Austin, MS, MPA, MCC
People live from their perceptions. Their perceptions create their perspectives, or frames, for how they hold the events and circumstances in their work and lives. These frames create an orientation or stance towards life events and circumstances and thus color their perceptions of their experiences. Mental frames are the basis of people’s ability to pursue important personal or professional goals—or their inability to make any forward movement. It is this latter instance that concerns us here. I’d like to address how reframing can support people to relinquish limiting assumptions and supplant them with positive, affirming beliefs that will support their forward movement in the pursuit of personally meaningful goals or simply to experience life as joyful and gratifying.
It is the reinterpretation of events and circumstances, or reframing, that alters people’s experience of life. This notion underlies the field of positive psychology, and it is an important aspect of the work that professional coaches and other “helping professionals” engage in.
We might think of a limiting assumption as the inability to see possibilities in the midst of a challenge or the inability to appreciate one’s capabilities in the midst of opportunity. The frames operating in someone’s thinking are treated as reality. As a coach, I’ve found it to be deeply gratifying to witness the shifts in perspective that result from reframing.
An example: a former client, Rhonda, was grappling with a career that had stalled and work that she experienced as dissatisfying and de-energizing. When I asked her in a coaching session what she dreamed of, she said, “I’d like to do what you do.” She quickly added that she didn’t see it as possible. I asked her to elaborate on her conclusion. She then revealed several limiting assumptions that had literally created her reality—a reality that had her stuck in a job she no longer enjoyed. While she was clear that moving into organizational coaching and consulting would likely require that she augment her Bachelor’s degree in engineering with a Master’s degree, she assumed that her full time job and family demands would preclude her returning to school and that she couldn’t afford the cost of tuition for a graduate degree. She was also doubtful about her capabilities to complete a graduate degree.
Our coaching focused on supporting her to reframe her limiting assumptions. By doing research on educational options, she soon appreciated that a number of distant learning programs would provide flexibility for completing her degree. She then did some research on her company’s tuition assistance policy and found that she qualified for a full tuition grant—and a day off each week from work to complete her coursework—because the organizational development Master’s degree she wished to pursue would enhance her ability to perform in a new diversity assignment she had recently assumed. Finally, a shift in her ability to appreciate her capabilities (based on abundant evidence about her intellectual strengths that she’d been discounting) allowed her to create the forward movement necessary to realize her goal. Rhonda completed her Master’s Degree in Organizational Development from a prestigious graduate university with a 4.0 GPA one year later. She also completed an organizational coach training program. After working several more years with her company, she relocated to another state and is now an OD professional for a state-wide health insurance company.Martin Seligman, sometimes referred to as the “father of positive psychology” did his early research in the 1970’s in the area of learned helplessness. His studies revealed that when the experience of frustration is continuous, animals—and people—can learn to see themselves as helpless, with an accompanying loss of hope and a generalized pessimistic outlook. The approach he advocated was to support people to re-frame their assumption that
they were helpless in the face of external events.
The movie, The Knights of the South Bronx, starring Ted Dansen and based on a real-life story, offers an inspiring example of reversing learned helplessness through re-framing. Dansen plays the role of a corporate executive who lost his job due to downsizing. He signed up to do substitute teaching in a Bronx high school. The kids were disadvantaged in every imaginable aspect, and they didn’t see much of a future for themselves. Their frames were rooted in poverty, drugs, struggle and absence of opportunity. Their behavior affirmed their dismal view of themselves. Dansen’s character happens to be an accomplished chess player, so when one of the kids asked him to teach them chess, he readily agreed. What began as an after-school recreational activity soon became the basis of real-life opportunity the kids had never known: competitive chess tournaments, prize money, scholarships, and college. Chess became the portal—the experience—through which the kids were able to alter their frames from helpless to victorious. Imagine my delight as the credits rolled at the end of the movie and the real-life names of the kids—and the big name universities they were attending—were listed. The very real story of the Knights of the South Bronx affirms that when we can support people to shift their limiting frames, we support them to realize possibilities they hadn’t previously imagined. The chess program has since been made a permanent part of the school’s offerings and has been adopted by others schools throughout the U.S.
Seligman’s work shifted away from leaned helplessness in the 1980’s because he was intrigued by the fact that some of his animal subjects never succumbed to a state of helplessness. Their persistence in the face of continuous frustration (inability to escape an uncomfortable electrical shock) suggested that they had something else working for them--an abiding sense of hope. In other words, they refused to interpret the events taking place as defeating, and they held strong in their belief that could alter their circumstances (they kept searching for a way to escape the electrical shock).
In 1995 Seligman published the book Learned Optimism in which he made a very persuasive case that people can alter a pessimistic outlook (limiting assumptions) by altering their explanations for external events. The model suggests that there are multiple ways to explain events, some that are self-defeating, and some that are self-enhancing. Seligman suggests that we can alter our experience of events by changing our explanations for those events.
Re-framing can be thought of as primarily a cognitive process, but it’s important to consider the emotional and behavioral dimensions of re-framing as well. Consider the diagram below, which shows thinking, behavior and emotion at equidistant points on a triangle:
Re-framing can occur by intervening in any of the three dimensions. For example, a person experiencing a depressed mood might shift the mood state (and thus one’s experience or frame) by engaging in a behavior, such as exercising or taking a hot bath. Similarly, an individual who is experiencing an emotionally reactive state can shift the state by engaging in a thinking task such as solving a puzzle. Solving the puzzle requires that the individual shift out of the emotionally reactive state into a cognitive state. Research on happiness has shown that people can enhance their experience of happiness by expressing feelings of gratitude or by indulging sensorial pleasure. In other words, they can shift their thinking (their experience of happiness) in a positive direction by stimulating the senses in a way that “feels” good emotionally. The story of one of my coaching students serves as an example.
Joann shared that after her husband died from a serious stroke three years ago, she had a difficult climb out of grief. As she relayed her story, she mentioned that one of the things she enjoyed before her husband’s death was spending time in the early morning meditating and reflecting in the soft light of a candle. I asked her if resuming this simple act that gave her so much pleasure in the past might be one of the things she could do to help herself reclaim her former level of happiness in her life. She agreed and committed to resuming her early morning ritual.
As you work with your clients, you’ll find many opportunities to work with re-framing. It’s a powerful way to support clients to expand their possibilities.
Jan Austin is a Master Certified Coach, Certified Professional Mentor Coach and coaching instructor. In her coaching practice, she specializes in working with organizational leaders and teams. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-669-9424.