grow stronger with a good reframe



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This article is excerpted from the book, Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things. Read more about it here.



ONE FORM of reframing is making plausible interpretations that help. When you realize the first explanation you make of an event isn’t a good one, ask yourself, “What would explain this event equally well — but make me feel better or help me get more done?” We're looking for a strong explanation of the event. Ideally you want your explanation to motivate you or energize you, or at least not bring you down.

For example, I found a great reframe in the book, Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain. Most people, when they experience pain in their body, think they need to rest. This is a natural response to an acute injury. But if the pain becomes chronic, people continue with this thinking, and the author says this is a mistake. When pain is chronic it is from what he calls “motion starvation.”

In other words, the human body needs to move in a variety of ways. Modern life doesn’t require that, so we often go days at a time moving very little (sitting at a desk, sitting in our car, sitting in front of the television, sitting in front of a computer), and what movements we do are in a narrow range. Over time, this motion deprivation causes pain.

The author reframed the cause of the pain. Rather than the usual explanation (if you're in pain, you should rest), the pain is from motion starvation, and the solution is more movement or a greater variety of movement.

This reframe, this entirely different way of looking at the same thing (the pain) would cause the opposite kind of behavior.

The question is, of course, which frame is correct? We now have two different explanations for, say, chronic back pain. Do you know which is the best explanation? If you've got back pain and you have just learned about this reframe, you really don't know if it's a better explanation or not, do you?

To find out which explanation is better, you'd need to find out which one has the better result. I’ve tried both explanations and the "motion starvation" explanation is the better one in my experience. Resting increases chronic pain; movement variety of the right kind decreases it.

A good reframe is a strong explanation of the situation — a way to re-interpret the situation so you are more effective, so you're more likely to get the results you want.

For example, at one point in WWI, two million Allied soldiers were ordered to stop retreating and go on the offensive. This new battle raged for two days when Marshal Foch sent his general this message: “My center gives way. My right recedes. The situation is excellent. I shall attack.”

Foch had been in command of the center of the whole line, and his renewed offensive essentially saved Paris. He reinterpreted dire circumstances as a perfect opportunity, and we can now see, after the fact, that his interpretation was a stronger one (more effective, more likely to get the result Foch wanted) than the most natural one that would occur to most people in similar circumstances (namely, "we're completely screwed").

Military situations lend themselves to legendary moments such as these, when all seems lost and when demoralization means certain and final defeat. Morale is often the crucial deciding factor in military engagements (and in your own life).

In the 1950s Marines were completely surrounded by the Chinese in Korea (at Chosin). Someone asked Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller if he realized they were outnumbered and encircled. “Those poor bastards!” he replied, “They’ve got us right where we want ‘em. We can shoot in every direction now.”

How’s that for a reframe? They could shoot in any direction and be sure of hitting the enemy because they were surrounded! Think about how that point of view would influence morale. If Col. Puller didn’t have a record of success behind him, of course, his men might have thought he’d lost his mind. But they knew he was an effective leader, and his attitude gave his men determination and fortitude. It was a strong interpretation of the situation. It made them more effective.

Contrast Col. Puller’s reframe with the natural and automatic reaction, “We’re completely surrounded and outnumbered. Oh my God! We’re gonna die!”

The soldiers didn’t know if they were going to die or not. It might have been likely, but that doesn’t make it certain. So this is a perfect situation for a reframe because you can’t determine the truth or falsity of any guess about the future. The only valid criteria for interpreting the event in those kinds of circumstances is to ask, “What will help?”

One point of view that would not help is, “We’re all going to die!” Col. Puller’s point of view worked a lot better.

Let's look at another military example, this time from the Civil War. Unconditional Surrender Grant, as he became known during the war, often saw apparently bleak circumstances in a way totally different than his fellow officers. And this different way of looking was one of the most important keys to his amazing success on the battlefield.

Grant was once away from Fort Donelson when his officers and troops engaged in a brutal conflict, and when Grant returned, he found very low morale among his men.

When the Confederates attacked, they had been carrying full packs on their backs. Nobody had recognized the significance of that fact until Grant arrived on the scene. They were too demoralized to think straight.

Grant thought the only reason the Confederates would attack carrying packs is because they were trying to fight to get away rather than trying to win the battle.

In a dispatch, Grant pointed out that although his men were demoralized, “I think the enemy is more so.” He reframed the situation, in other words. He saw it from a different point of view than his officers. The Union troops were not merely demoralized and tired from the battle — they were fighting an enemy who was even more demoralized. And to Grant, that meant that whoever attacked now would probably win.

Grant had enough evidence for either point of view: Either they were defeated...or they could attack again and probably win. The question was, “Which was the most effective way to see this? Which way would bring the best results?”

Based on what he knew about morale, Grant made his decision. He rode his horse along the line of his disheartened troops, yelling out that the Confederates were trying to retreat, and he urged every man to refill his ammunition pouch and get ready to attack.

Fort Donelson fell. It was one of the most significant Union victories of the Civil War.

In war, as in many other challenging endeavors, morale makes the difference. And morale can be changed with a reframe. Demoralization can be transformed into steely determination and that is a powerful change to make on a battlefield (and in other difficult or challenging situations).

It was a particular talent of Grant’s to see things from the enemy’s point of view. War tends to generate fear, of course, and fear narrows your focus. Fear gives you tunnel vision. Soldiers tended to focus on their own dire situation and not see the big picture. Have you ever had that problem? Next time, try reframing your "dire" situation and see what happens.

Grant was often able to reframe circumstances by widening his point of view, by bringing in more of the scene, and many times this broader point of view made it obvious that the circumstances were less dire than they seemed (to a person with tunnel vision).

Once it was pouring rain, and when Grant rode up, Major Belknap anxiously told Grant their troops were in trouble because of the rain. The roads were hopelessly muddy, they could hardly move, and Confederates were close.

Grant replied, “Young man, don’t you know that the enemy is stuck in the mud too?”

Major Belknap hadn’t even thought of that. He had been so focused on the fearful and frustrating situation of his own troops, he’d forgotten that it was raining on the enemy too! His morale was immediately improved by this new reframe.

Try that next time you face an obstacle to your goal. Widen your point of view, and try to reframe the circumstances in a way that increases your determination.

Read next: Behold the Power of Reframing

This article is excerpted from the book, Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things. Read more about it here.

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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