The Power of Reframing

“Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that - thoughts.”
— Allan Lokos

In film, reframing is a change in camera angle without a cut and often changes a scene’s focus. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from the at Stanford University mention reframing as one of the five principles of Design Thinking that is useful when applied not just to product design but also to the process of designing one’s life. In their best-selling book, Designing Your Life, How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life, they define reframing as follows: “Reframing is how designers get unstuck. Reframing also makes sure that we are working on the right problem. Life design involves key reframes that allow you to step back, examine your biases, and open up new solution spaces”.

Reframing is one of the most effective tools I have taught to my coaching clients. The power of this tool is also explained in an important article titled “The neuroscience of Strategic Leadership”, published in the summer of 2017 by Strategy+Business. The article tells the story of Natalie, a stressed-out, overworked, HR director who, with the help of a coach, was able to identify the deceptive messages her brain were sending her: “Most people are screw-ups and need to be tightly managed. Firm leaders do not respect me. I am just the head of HR and real work happens in sales and finance”. After adopting a mindfulness practice (that the article’s authors define as “clear-minded awareness of one’s own mental activity”), she was able to relabel the messages as simply brain messages that do not need to be listened to. She learned to reframe the messages, choosing alternatives ways to look at the situation. She transformed her thought process and now continually looks at alternative ways to make valuable contributions, even in areas in which she is not an expert. This has changed the way she is seen at her company.

We also hear about stepping back, examining our biases and opening up to new possibilities, in other contexts. Here is a Zen story illustrating the concept of reframing:

Two men were arguing about a flag fluttering in the wind.

“It’s the wind that is really moving,” said the first one. “No, it is the flag that is moving,” contended the second.

A Zen master walked past and overheard the debate. He said, “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving. It is mind that moves.”

Mindfulness practices can also involve reframing: Headspace, the meditation app co-created by Andy Puddicombe, puts it this way: “We are not our thoughts and we are not our emotions. If we can learn to experience the mind in this way then we are free.”

So how do you start to learn the skill of reframing?

The first step as we have seen is to become aware of one’s own mental habits. Natalie the HR manager first had to become aware of her own thoughts and reflect on the associated biases. Only then could she look at possible reframes. Or as Dave Evans and Bill Burnett say: the first step is to step back.

Learning to observe one’s thoughts or emotions can be done through many contemplative practices that typically include solitude, silence and stillness such as journaling, meditation, mindfulness practices or silent retreats.

A simple practice that I find useful in my life coaching practice is to use the STOP exercise of

  • Stopping,

  • Taking a few breaths,

  • Observing and

  • Proceeding.

STOP was first introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn in MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and you can watch a youtube video that will guide you through the process at

With many of my coaching clients, engaging in STOP a number of times every day is a starting point. After a few weeks of practice, I regularly add a step before the Proceeding step and that is: Reframing. The STORP acronym is not the most elegant one but, adding a reframing step before proceeding allows for the added benefit of finding a different perspective.

You can learn more about my (Designing Your Life) coaching package on my site. It’s a 10-week long program based on the eponymous book mentioned in this blog post. Inquire here for more information.

And feel free to comment this blog post. Thank you.