Reframing, or Perspectives Revisited

Let’s start with a definition of terms, from Wikipedia:

Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.

In other words, reframing is taking an issue, situation, or interaction and turning it around in your head in order to see it from different perspectives. For the visual learners out there, look at it as separating the issue from your Self, setting it on the floor in front of you, and walking around it.

The concept of separating an issue from your Self might seem…woo-woo, or just a tad odd to some of you. No worries. The first step is to understand that what you’re experiencing is not who you are. The situation you find yourself in is just that, a discrete thing. It’s something that’s happening in this moment. The Self that is experiencing it exists independent of that situation.

Internalizing this fact is what will allow you to view the incident as something you can set down in front of you and examine. This lets you see it from many different angles, taking in multiple perspectives on the issue. Do several laps. Really let each distinct perspective sink in and make an impact on how you view this thing that is your situation.

In performing this separation, you will gain distance from the issue. This will allow you some room to breathe, to really examine the issue from these alternate perspectives and get a better grasp on it. You’ll see additional possibilities that may have been hidden previously due to the cultural blinders we all wear. These blinders are the inherent biases we all carry with us every day; the things we think we know and the societal assumptions we make, often unconsciously.

Time for a personal example.

For something like 15 years now, I’ve worked in IT support in one way or another. I figured out years ago that this was not the field I was supposed to be in, yet with the passing years and increasing experience, it becomes difficult to make any substantive career moves. I didn’t get into this field for any of the reasons people expect. I don’t particularly like computers. I like helping people. I like being able to help them solve a problem that allows them to be their best selves and do what they need to do more efficiently and effectively. It turned out I had an ability to fix computer and software issues. Don’t ask where that came from. No clue.*

After going through my own health journey over the last several years, I discovered a new field called Wellness Coaching. Coaching relies on skills that I seem to have innately. Things like listening intently (and listening before speaking), only asking deep questions that cause people to really think through their answers, and using intuition to interpret the pauses in conversations. This leads to discoveries on the part of the client, helping them find their way to their own definition of wellness.

Fast forward to the present. I’ve completed a Graduate Certificate in coaching, incurring the student debt I’ve read so much about recently, and have moved back to Seattle. Yet here I am, on the hunt for another IT job. How to make sense of this perceived lack of movement away from IT? That’s where reframing enters the story.

This part hit me in a blinding flash of ‘Duh’ the other day. My training in coaching positions me nicely to fill the role of team lead, or senior member of a support desk team. These roles often come with the expectation of mentoring/coaching younger members of the team, along with the usual customer interactions. I can now use the traits I already possess and felt like I had to quash behind my mask of IT Guy. When I can tell a coworker is having a bad day, I can gently inquire and see if talking about it helps them move on and refocus their energy on the day’s tasks. I can use my intuition to help with reviews. the possibilities are endless now that I’ve made the cognitive shift to seeing my traits and training as boons to my IT career rather than as a failed attempt at changing careers altogether.

This perspective shift, or reframing, changed my view on the time and money I put into this certificate. I now see it as a way to further my current career trajectory. And at the same time, it gives me a way to use some of those traits that were previously getting in the way and causing a disconnect in my day to day life.

That example kind of got away from me, yet remains on point for this topic. You can do this exercise with any situation you encounter. Whenever you find yourself saying, “OK, here’s what happened, now what do I do?!?!” Or, “here’s the only option I can see…” This is your cue to try reframing. You may very well end up right back where you started, and that’s OK. If so, you’ll get there having examined the situation from all these perspectives and you’ll be confident that your course of action is right for the situation and the moment.

Next time, I’ll go into a bit more depth on those culturally based blinders I briefly mention above. They deserve more time and attention than I could give them here, at least without making this more of a tome than it already is.

* OK, that’s not strictly true. I’m pretty sure it relates to where I fall on what’s called the Global ⇔ Sequential Thinker spectrum. I’m all the way global. This means that I look at a problem and see it all at once as a single, unified whole. Sequential folks see things as a series of logical steps, to be followed in order, one at a time. The benefit to me in being a global thinker is that I can often see where the glitch is with only a minimum of input from the customer and/or a minimum of poking around – rather than following a series of 10+ steps, most of which are irrelevant to the problem at hand.

Shift Your Perspective

This is an amalgamation of what started out as 3 posts on a previous blog. I’ve edited it heavily and in the end decided to combine the whole thing into one longer piece, hoping that the resulting total is indeed more than the sum of its parts. Trust me, it’s going to make more sense and be easier to digest this way. Think of it like throwing the entire week’s leftovers into one pot and turning it all into a stew. Just goes down easier than the individual bits do.

Perspective is everything

I stumbled on an interesting piece on Placemakers some time ago that had a great, brief history of the NIMBY movement (Not In My BackYard). The article’s point was to pinpoint where the movement took a turn for the…for argument’s sake let’s say, worse, and it includes what I think is a fundamental life lesson about perspective:

“The burden now falls on you to stop telling them what you don’t want. And start telling them what you do want.”

In other words, if you go through life focused on the negative, you’ll likely miss all the positive that’s out there. This seems extra timely given the content of the 24/7 news cycle. Don’t become so focused on a negative, let’s say news story, (or worse all of them at the same time) that you miss out on all the positive ones that are also happening, often right under your nose.

Take a step back and see negative situations/stories as a learning opportunity. Learn about the importance of shifting your perspective. Instead of “you can’t do ABC,” try “I wonder if XYZ would work?” By reframing things in the positive you may be amazed that you can get results you’ll be proud of, results that get you something you want, rather than just NOT getting something you don’t want.

Back to the source quote and article for a second. NIMBYs focus all of their efforts and energies into blocking things they don’t want; bridges, trails, airport runways (to use some examples from Seattle) – that they often miss what they already have – community. What if these groups of neighbors got together more often than just every time there was a hearing where they wanted to oppose something and decided instead to build a community garden on a vacant lot? Or got together to help an elderly neighbor fix up their house so they could continue to live independently – and remain a part of their community?

Time to Flip It

“So maybe it’s time to flip our perspective upside down. Instead of talking about ‘lifestyle disease,’ maybe it’s time to start talking about ‘diseased lifestyles.’ This simple reversal will yield some new insights.”

Frank Forencich

It seems so simple on the surface. All you have to do is flip your view on something 180 degrees and you get a whole different perspective. You might find that you’re able to see it from someone else’s point of view, making it easier to come to an agreement. So why is it so effing hard most of the time? Well, for starters there’s this thing called The Backfire Effect. At its most basic level, this idea says that no matter how much ‘fact’ you throw at someone, at best they will not alter their strongly held belief at all – and at worst you’ll actually strengthen said belief. So the chances of you getting this person to ‘see things your way’ don’t look so good.

In terms of what Frank is talking about above, our western medical system is the manifestation of a strongly entrenched belief system that says ‘treat the symptom.’ It says nothing whatsoever about the cause. If you present with a stuffy nose, you’re going to get a decongestant to dry out the mucus in your sinuses. If you have a fever, you’ll get a pill to bring your temperature down. Never mind that the mucus and fever are your body’s natural defense, its way of fighting off an intruder. By treating the symptom you never get to the point of finding out just what it is your body is trying to protect itself from, and you effectively cut off your own defenses before they have a chance to get started doing their job.

And to start treating causes, you have to look at the root cause, not just the immediate one. So if your symptom is that runny nose, the immediate cause might seem to be a seasonal allergy. If you look deeper however you may find that you’re leaving yourself open to that seasonal allergy because your immune system is taxed past its limits because of the amount of sugar and refined wheat you eat (yes, that one was personal experience). So we’ve gone from taking a decongestant for relief from the snot to examining a cultural assumption (wheat is part of a healthy diet) in order to find the root cause and eliminate it.

All that from what should be a simple shift of perspective.

This 180 flip from symptom to cause can be useful in other situations as well. Take many of the culturally based assumptions we make about consumerism, the idea of keeping up with the Joneses. What if, instead of trying to out-spend the Joneses, we focused on out-experiencing them? Instead of buying a bigger plasma TV (is that still the top of the line option? I don’t own a TV anymore) how about taking a trip with your family and making some new memories?

Or instead of that new car you’ve been eyeing, how about selling the extra car and trying a cargo bike? The conversation on the way to school will shift from what video they want to watch to what bird made that noise, or how much fun it is to fly past all the cars stuck in traffic. All this from asking, “what if I did this instead of that?” Or “what might the outcome be if I did XYZ instead of ABC?”

Next time you have a decision to make around consumption, stop for a second and flip things over in your head. The results might surprise you.

“If you change how you think about it, it’s impact on what you feel and do changes.”

– Walter Mischel

This quote is a nice, tidy summary of the whole idea of shifting your perspective. By definition – If you want to see something from the “other” side, you want to change how that something is impacting your life. What Mischel is saying is that the simple act of looking at it differently can be all it takes to accomplish this.

That takes us out of the realm of disease prevention and consumerism. In fact, it pretty well opens up any and all topics and situations for exploration. Having a discussion with your boss about when that big project needs to be ready for presentation? They say next week for the leadership meeting and you say 2 weeks later in time for the shareholder meeting? Instead of sticking to your guns, take a step back and look at it from their perspective. You may find that having a dry run for the leadership group could, in fact, be beneficial, plus you’d then have 2 weeks to make changes and tweak your presentation before it goes public.

In many ways, this is also connected to staying grounded in the present moment. When you get wrapped up in defending your perspective, what’s really happening is you’re focusing on the future – and just one possible future at that. What you’re seeing is an extra 2 weeks of procrastinating, of being able to focus on other tasks that you view as more important than the project presentation. When you pause and take that step back, you return your grounding to the here and now. This is what gives you the opportunity to shift perspectives over to that of your boss and see the future results of your actions now.

In staying focused on your side of the discussion (argument really), you’re also staying focused on just one possible outcome. Being able to see an alternative can be extremely helpful in many areas of daily life. From work to your commute, to asking how your partner’s day went (or knowing when to avoid asking). Even from crashing on the couch in front of reruns after dinner to playing a board game with the family, or reading a book, or maybe taking a quiet walk around the neighborhood.

All that from the seemingly simple act of taking a step back, staying present and shifting your perspective.

This piece took on a life of its own when I started editing. The idea was to show the wide variety of situations and topics where shifting your perspective can open up new vistas and possibilities. Perspective as a topic holds a special place in my heart since one of my traits is the innate ability to see things from multiple perspectives by default. I’ll address that trait and what it means to me in a future post, or possibly a series of posts.