Unexpected reframes

I was in an airport, recently, waiting for my plane to land before it transformed in an instant from 2631 from Detroit to Dallas, into flight 3144  from Dallas to Birmingham. Had I blinked for too long? How did this happen? And what must that experience have been like for those on the flight? Were their memories radically altered to accommodate this new reality? Did they notice anything at all? Did they all land in a fugue, trying to recall how they got there…?

It’s purely symantecs, I know – nothing has actually changed about the flight, other than it’s start and end points. Still…it seems like a fun example of a magical transformation. If you dare believe in that sort of thing…

The good people who run the airline had apparently realized that,  when they say we could all bring two pieces of carryon luggage into the plane’s cabin, their hope that not all of us would take them up on it had fallen through. In fact, we each brought two complete pieces of highly compressed carryon baggage… You can imagine the scene when, later in the sanctity of our hotel rooms, we carefully dab three drops of water from a medicine dropper onto that carryon luggage and it magically expands into an extire house-ful of stuff?

Before that magic, I never could find a means of trnasporting my vast metaphysical, psychological, religious, and philosophical (I know – what’s the difference?!) and computer networking libraries conveniently on an intracontinental flight.

Still, I looked down at my meager, highly compressed, carryons with pride as the clever airline represntative announced, sounding not unlike the teacher in the Charlie Brown Peanuts cartoons, “If you would like to be relieved of the burden of carrying on two full bags into the cabin on this flight, please come forward and we will check your extra bags with no extra burden or stress on you!” It came out like the old joke about the codger complaining about when he was your age, he had to trudge ten miles to school each way, uphill both times! Regardless of the PA’s distortion, the voice made it sound as though we were all suffering far more than we realized, having to carry two full carryon bags with us! And just before our arms would fall off, they were willing to offer a solution!

Ironically, people around me began to shift uncomfortably, as though they had been supressing this vast suffering, and that with this little reminder, they were ready to jump at the opportunity to unburden themselves. I was amused by the subsequent rush of people wanting to unburden themselves.

For those of you unfamiliar with reframing, the magic occurs where the meaning changes. Initially each person opted to carry on each of their pieces of luggage. Perhaps they checked other items, but these two items, they singled out as important enough to keep close. For the airline to ask them to give this up, to relinquish this convenience, would likely have been ignored by all. After all, if I had wanted to check these two bags, I would have. I kept them because I either want access to them or I don’t want them being thrown onto a conveyer belt like a sack of potatoes. I learned years ago that just because the luggage maker is good, that’s no reason to tempt fate. Everything can be broken. Luggage as well as bad habits.

With the language the airline representative used, the meaning of giving up the bags was suddenly changed, as was the meaning of keeping them handy. No longer was it convenient to keep them in hand, now it was suddenly a burden.

Similarly, giving the bags up and checking them was now reframed as a great relief, a convenience far greater than having to keep the bags with the passenger.

Reframing is changing the context in some fashion to ultimately change the meaning within a communication.

Consider what marriage means to many people – being “tied down”, “restricted”, “giving up your freedom”. Many others however have come to recognize the joy, stability, sensuality, and ironically the freedom that comes from having a trusted and deeply loved partner.

The term derived from the notion of taking the same picture and placing it in different frames to influence the impact of that picture. Reframing is a powerful technique in persuasion, and we the influenced rarely notice that the meaning has been changed in us. Typically, the arena determines the frame of reference most advantageous to the host. The restaurant frames the more expensive entrees so that it means greater pleasure, so that rather than your notice the price, you are salivating at just how good it’s going to be.

One fun example in politics I recall from a few years back was when Ronald Reagan, a brilliant influencer, was debating Walter Mondale as both were running for the Office of President of the United States in 1984. Much had been said about Reagan’s age, which made him the oldest person to run for that office in US history. Some raised the issue of age being a negative for Reagan, as it was conceivable that he could die of natural causes during his term, if elected. What then for the country? Did we want to risk such a thing?

Mondale, to his credit, did not exploit this directly, and there were no attack ads trying to drum fear into voters regarding Reagan’s age. However when Reagan had a chance to comment on this, he did not argue why age is not a problem or that he was not in fact too old for the office. He instead reframed the meaning of age with a very witty statement, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Think about that. From that frame of reference, that context, advanced age was no longer a bad thing. Rather, youth was. It’s important to note that reframing doesn’t argue facts. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things”. You can argue them if you like, but you will generally find eager opponents who are too well-informed to relinquish their knowledge. It’s a waste of time in most cases, though yes, it has been done successfully. But agreeing with the facts, and merely changing their context and therefore their meaning, is much more effective.

No more than a week later, in another airport, I heard another great example of reframing. I sat typing away on my laptop as the PA began to squawk. Sometimes these messages are important, so I paused and listened… “Passengers on flight 2254 headed for Atlanta, your flight is completely full and will be very crowded. Anyone wanting to depart thirty minutes later on flight 3296 will enjoy a half-full cabin with lots of extra room to stretch your legs, and plenty of overhead compartment space for your carryon items!” She made it sound like we would be winning the lottery by just opting to delay ourselves half an hour. Small price to pay, right? The meaning of the full flight, which most of us have been through, was framed as being uncomfortable and inconvenient, while the half-full flight was suddenly a luxurious and infinitely more comfortable for the passengers. And we could enjoy this seeming upgrade at no extra charge!

Notice how the facts did not change, only their context, and subsequent meaning.

Someone out there is getting a good value for their consulting dollars!

Now consider this – where in your life, your work, your family, your relationships, would a change of context make your meanings, and therefore youre experiences, better? You would be surprised by just how powerful this simple device can be.

You could argue that a reframe is not a magical transformation, but then we can also create a context or frame of reference where it feels just like that. Remember, the facts didn’t change, though we are changing the frame to create a vastly different meaning. And after it’s said and done, what is a memory of that experience? A combination of the events, the facts, and the meaning.