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Techniques General persuasion > Reframing

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



A frame, or frame of reference is a complex schema of unquestioned beliefs, values and so on that we use when inferring meaning. If any part of that frame is changed (hence 'reframing'), then the meaning that is inferred may change.

To reframe, step back from what is being said and done and consider the frame, or 'lens' through which this reality is being created. Understand the unspoken assumptions, including beliefs and schema that are being used.

Then consider alternative lenses, effectively saying 'Let's look at it another way.' Challenge the beliefs or other aspects of the frame. Stand in another frame and describe what you see. Change attributes of the frame to reverse meaning. Select and ignore aspects of words, actions and frame to emphasise and downplay various elements.

Thus, for example, you can reframe:

  • A problem as an opportunity
  • A weakness as a strength
  • An impossibility as a distant possibility
  • A distant possibility as a near possibility
  • Oppression ('against me') as neutral ('doesn't care about me')
  • Unkindness as lack of understanding
  • etc.

You can often change a person's frame simply by changing their emotional state, making them happier, more aggressive, etc. When they are happier, for example, they will be more positive and optimistic (and vice versa).


You say it can't be done in time. But what if we staged delivery or got in extra help? I'm sure we can produce an acceptable product in the timeframe.

It does seem stupid, but it's also stupid not to look again and see what else can be done.

It's not so much doing away with old ways as building a new and exciting future.

We have shown we can argue well. Maybe this means we can also agree well.


Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch (1974) describe the 'gentle art of reframing' thus:

To reframe, then, means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the 'facts' of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changing its entire meaning.

We make meaning from the world around us by taking a limited number of facts and inferring or assuming other detail to be able to make sense of things. Reframing leaves the facts alone but may well challenge the assumptions. With care, you can change the other person's reality without causing conflict.

Within the inference filters we use, we classify things into groups and types which have defining attributes. Reframing may deliberately challenge these. Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch describe this as:

In it's most abstract terms, reframing means changing the emphasis from one class membership of an object to another, equally valid class membership, or, especially, introducing such as new class membership into the conceptualization of all concerned.

Reframing may also challenge superficial desires, appeal to more fundamental needs and interests. For example a request for a pay rise may be reframed as an imperative to keep talented people.

Reframing may even be done physically and symbolically, for example where a social leader goes for dinner with someone who has hereto been ignored, reframing the person as a friend.

Reframing is used in many disciplines to create understanding and motivation.

In selling, reframing takes an objection to a sale and turns it around to be a key reason to buy. In teaching, reframing explains a point in a different way, thus helping those who did not understand when it was explained the first time. In leadership, reframing takes a mundane or scary idea and makes it exciting. In therapy, reframing takes something that is causing fear or dysfunction and gives the person a helpful way of understanding it.

Hale (1998) describes how reframing can be used in dramatic games, for example where people play roles of victim and hero.

Philips (1999) describes three ways reframing happens in active listening:

  • Reflecting some words and ignoring others.
  • Inviting or discouraging collaborative meaning-making on selected topics.
  • Reformulating what people say (i.e. common usage of reframing).

Bizer and Petty (2005) found that people who framed their political view as in opposition to a political candidate were more resistant to persuasion than those who were positively supportive of a candidate.

The term 'frame' also appears in the common usage of a 'frame of mind', typically used to describe a cognitive position or mood. Whilst our current emotional state is not the whole of a perceptual frame, it is an important element of it and changing emotions will change the frame and hence created meaning.

Beyond personal perception, all ideologies from political systems to religions are frames for creating meaning. Cultures, likewise, embody methods of interpreting and shared ways of making sense of the world, as are the models by which we perceive ourselves and others. When we share frames with others, we share meaning. When we have different frames we can easily fall into conflict if we consider the frames of others to be non-legitimate.

Reframing is a particularly useful method when two or more people are stuck in opposing and seemingly-intractable positions. Reframing here effectively changes the ground from under their feet. It is thus a common method in conflict resolution. A typical approach is to:

  • First get each parties to understand their own frame, and that it is a frame.
  • Then each must appreciate that other people have different frames that are, for them, valid.
  • Then each accepts that no one person has the 'right' frame
  • And hence accept that the other person's frame is valid.
  • Then to equitably explore similarities and differences.

See also

Schema, Framing principle, Frame of Reference, Objection Reframing, Meaning, The Third Side


Bizer, G. Y., & Petty, R. E. (2005). How we conceptualize our attitudes matters: The effects of valence framing on the resistance of political attitudes. Political Psychology, 26, 553-568

Hale, K. (1998) The Language of Cooperation: Negotiation Frames, Mediation Quarterly, 16(2), 147-162

Phillips, B. (1999). Reformulating Dispute Narratives Through Active Listening, Mediation Quarterly,17(2), 161-180

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. and Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, NY: Norton


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