This communication skill, reframing, can turn grinding arguments into teamwork.
When your discussion gets locked into arguing over who is at fault, it will usually end badly. Maybe your argument is all about past hurts and regrets and fear about repeating it over and over.
Reframing is a way to turn the discussion positive, even hopeful about the future.
What is Reframing?
Reframing is a communication skill that takes the same facts, complaints and regrets that you are already discussing and turns them into progess towards a solution. It is used by negotiators, leaders, counsellors and mediators. Here is a simple example:
Original Description: "I am tired of spending two hours in traffic to get home from work every day. I am always exhausted when I get home."
Reframe: "I want to have some energy left at the end of the day. I need a faster way home or a different job location."
This simple reframe could change a discussion from complaints and negativity into a solution-focused chat about possibilities for a better job location and enjoying evening activities. The reframe works by making two changes
Switch to talking about the future
Switch to talking about hopes and intentions, even dreams.
Types of Reframing
Positions to Interests
Instead of seeing your conflict in win-lose terms, reframe to the interests behind those positions. Positions to interests is the go-to reframe.
Original: "You want to stay home on Friday but I want to go to a party."
Reframe: "You enjoy quiet time together, and I like being at social events."
This reframe raises the conversation to what each one's needs or interests are. Maybe this couple can figure out ways to meet both their needs at different times.
Problem Focus to Goal Focus
Instead of exploring how bad the situation is, reframe to a goal.
Original: "We're incompatible because I like being with people and you just like to stay home!"
Reframe: "Lots of happy couples have differences like us; how do they do it?"
This couple can start imagining ways to stay together even with their differences.
Fears to Hopes
Fears about repeating past problems can block us from seeing ways to change
Original: "You always ignore me, so I don't try to talk to you anymore."
Reframe: "I would love to have you listen to me about this. I wonder if that could happen."
Differences to Similarities
Instead of listing all the clashing interests, reframe to similar ones.
Original: "The house is messy because you don't like cleaning up, and I'm only happy when everything is put away!"
Reframe: "We both enjoy living together, and we both need to feel comfortable with how the house looks around us."
This couple will need to compromise somehow. Keeping their common interests in mind with help ease the challenge.
Wait Before Reframing
Save reframing for after you have listened for a while. It's a big step for your partner to buy into switching the conversation to something positive. They need to feel their concerns are understood and even shared by you. Give it time.
Fixing problems and offering solutions is a natural response when you hear someone complain, and you will get to do that after your partner has said some of the things they are bursting to say.
Reframing Communication Gone Wrong
Don't talk like a politician or a public relations spokesperson. We all feel annoyed when we hear a politician answer a question like this:
Question: "How can voters trust you to reduce crime and homelessness when those numbers have just gotten worse since you were elected?"
Bad Reframe: "I am dedicated to making this community a better place to live because that's what voters trust me to do"
Don't do that. Using a reframe to defend yourself and obscure the concerns of your partner will just make them more hostile.
How to Practice Reframing
Start easy. Your partner is the most challenging person to do this with, so test your skills with someone in a casual conversation like this maybe:
Statement: "The rain ruined our family picnic." Response: "Oh you must have been disappointed. A nice sunny day makes a picnic so memorable."
Statement: "That repair on my car cost far too much. That shop scammed me."
Response: "Wow, that's not fair to you. You need a mechanic who is honest and affordable."
Test yourself with the reaction too. If your response lands just right, you will see confirmation on your friend's face, maybe nodding their head or saying "Uh huh, I sure do."
Practicing at home will take more stamina at first. Inevitably something like this will happen:
Angry Statement: "You don't listen to what I'm trying to say! I'm tired of this."
Restrained Response: "Oh you want me to listen a bit better. I guess you would enjoy it if I did."
It's not easy to do that. You can guess how I know. Reframing is worth the effort. I know that too.
Thanks to my instructors in the conflict resolution programme at the Justice Institute of British Columbia for helping me learn about reframing described above, and other communication skills. I recommend their courses to any professional who needs to help staff or clients solve conflict.
Dixon Zalit is a counsellor in Vernon BC, offering counselling for stress and anxiety, relationships, and other self-management topics.