The power of reframing: turn disaster into opportunity


Bad things happen in life all the time. From something as insignificant as having a fight or losing a flight, to more dramatic events like losing your home, your job, having a friend or family member die, getting in a car accident and so on – everybody has had at least one event that has more or less had an impact on them.

As much as we’d like it to be, life isn’t all roses.

But the real measure of “strength” is not about what happens to you. It’s about how you interpret what happens. What meaning do you give an event?

We cannot erase the past. But we can give it new meaning.

History is rife with examples of men and women who got beaten down by fate again and again, this only furthering their resolve to get their desired outcome. They got disappointment after disappointment, each time learning something new, getting with each step to their coveted prize.

Failure is not a permanent state. It is finding out that one way of action does not yield results. In fact, failure means that you have tried something. The next step is to alter your course of action and try again until your outcome is achieved.

In NLP, reframing is the process by which one action or event is given new meaning.

The man who is robbed and beaten by thugs at night has the option to choose what happens next. Will he stick to walking the streets during the day only? Will he decide to increase his physical prowess and perhaps join a boxing gym? Will he buy a gun? Will he decide to do something more radical and move to another country? Or will he just accept the incident and go about his life without giving much importance to it?

Just like this, in life we have a million events that happen to us and we have the power to frame these events as we see fit.

It is unfortunate that many people give up or remain stuck in the past, replaying unfortunate events in their heads day in and day out leaving them bitter and miserable with no energy to change their life.

An NLP practitioner will help clients with their problem by having them do a reframe of the problem.

Reframing is looking at the problem from another perspective. Although you sometimes need someone to guide you, anybody can reframe almost everything they choose.

Sleight of Mouth Patterns

Here are a couple of ways you can reframe a situation. Let’s take a simple example.

“I can’t find a job and I’m depressed.”

Generalize: Perhaps you’re just feeling depressed in general and it isn’t because of the fact that you can’t find job that you’re feeling like this.

Apply to self: Maybe you’re amplifying the problem by thinking about it like that.

Elicit values or criteria: What is important to you about finding a job that could lead to you feeling depressed?

Positive outcome: Not finding a job could motivate you to work harder to get over this particular problem.

Change outcome: Perhaps you need to take some time off and not think about it so much OR perhaps you need to look elsewhere (what kind of job are you looking for anyway?).

Setting a further outcome: Can you learn something useful from how your search has been going up until this moment?

Tell a metaphor: It’s a bit like choosing the right-sized clothes…

Redefine: Your depression might signify that you are feeling frustrated because you are looking for a specialist job in a place that has no use for these skills.

Step down: Which part do you have difficulty with in finding a job?

Step up: Besides the job, how are things in general?

Counter examples: Have you ever felt happy while not having a job?

Positive intention: That shows that you value doing something productive with your time.

Time frame: You’re just having an unlucky streak. It will pass.


Reframing does not make problems go away. It does however, give you a fresh perspective and renewed energy to solve that problem. The more options you have of looking at things, the easier a thing becomes.

When feeling stuck, reframe so that you can see both a benefit and an outcome that is congruent with your own will and the will of others. Absence of freedom is when all your choices are dictated by exterior forces. Reframing gives you room to manoeuvre so that you can say “I’m doing this BECAUSE it gets me closer to x, y, z” rather than something that has no benefit to you.

Context reframing

Context reframing refers to the reframing of actions in different settings. Nearly everything we do has a use. Think about it. Being “serious” and focused is a requirement at the workplace but if you brought the same behaviors and resources at a family gathering, tension would surely arise. Being late is often seen as a negative thing but what if you arrived late at an event on purpose so you could avoid certain people who you know are going to leave early? Being dry and boring isn’t exactly going to win you many fans but when it comes to shooing away guests in a manner that makes them think it’s their idea to leave, being dry and boring suddenly becomes a useful skill.

Context reframing is best used when you hear statements like “I’m too…” or “I wish I wasn’t so…”. Ask yourself:

  • What is a situation when this behavior could be useful?
  • Where would this behavior be a resource?

When you find a setting where your problematic behavior can be reframed as useful, you can future pace a number of times and practice to make this new behavior stick.

Content reframing

Like we said in the intro to this article, the meaning of a thing is whatever you choose it to be. You can choose on which part of the experience to focus on. Politics and advertising uses content reframing heavily.

For example, the tobacco industry in the 60s had to constantly innovate with their advertising, and while every tobacco company dried and toasted it’s tobacco, Lucky Strike was the first one to do a content reframe and tell the world that their tobacco is toasted. One way to turn a mundane thing into a unique one is just by observing it and pointing it out before others do.

Jerry Seinfeld has made his career by observing the little things people do and their tacit agreement to things that do not always make sense.

Politicians are masters at content reframing. A British minister went as far as to say that traffic congestion is a good sign because it means that the economy is growing. He said that if traffic went smoothly, it would herald the economic death of the city.

Everything around you can be put in a different light.

There’s no doubt about it that an emotionally charged incident often changes our lives.

The question (and the challenge) to ask is: how do we choose that event to alter our life? Which direction will that event propel us in?

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