Meaning Reframe

Portions of this article are excerpted from an NLP Practitioner Certification class held in 2000.

Meaning reframe is the experience we’ve all had naturally where we “know” what is happening, what it means to us, and therefore what we expect will happen next. Suddenly, we have an experience or receive new information that abruptly changes the meaning of the situation for us. We utilize this device when the original perception limited our options and likely behaviors. By choosing to shift or reframe the meaning of the circumstance, we begin to feel our options expand, our choice of behaviors grow, giving us more freedom to act within that circumstance.

The foundation of this is that an experience or event in the environment inspires a response from us, based upon the meaning we assign that event. This is typically unconscious, so when speaking about this, many people find it surprising to learn that they have in fact assigned meaning to the experience, themselves. Generally, they will presume that the response made sense as there is only one meaning—the one they chose—to a given event. An example of this is a natural disaster. Some people respond to this with panic, fear for their safety, and the only behavior that makes sense to them is to seek shelter. Learning that the meaning, “I’m in danger” is not necessarily true, that the storm may be raging, the earthquake shaking, but that as they calmly take shelter, the meaning may now become, “I may be able to help others” might become apparent. The act of finding safety can be achieved so quickly at times by a calmer mind that the person may shift in seconds to focusing on how they can help others.

The truth is that, despite it seeming otherwise in the heat of the moment, all meaning is contextual. The circumstances can seem quite different, depending on the context in which we view them. Another common example many of us have had is a bad relationship ending. We may still value parts of that relationship and miss them very much. Until we learn about meaning reframe, we may believe that there’s only one way to experience this breakup—sadness and a sense of loss. If we focus on the context of how good some of those “good times” were, then yes, that response might make sense. But if we notice how those good times were often difficult to cultivate, and how the majority of the relationship was painful or filled with struggle, we can begin to see how perhaps the relationship wasn’t as good overall as we initially believed. Perhaps in fact, we are better off with a more supportive relationship in which the “good times” were in the majority, the difficulty in the minority.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, you would shift the meaning of this breakup from being “sad, painful,” to “fortunate that it happened before it was too late!”

Now, to cultivate this reframe yourself, to broaden our perspective by reframing, we must verify that the new option makes more sense to us than the current way of thinking, and as important, the new way of thinking is an unassailable, valid perspective. That is, the reframe must make sense not only to our own Map of the World, but also to any rational person who might be invited to critique it. An example of the latter is that I may be facing that difficult breakup mentioned above, but instead of focusing on the honest truth that some things weren’t as great as I may wish to selectively remember, maybe I decide to pretend that my former lover was a psychotic murderer and I’m lucky to have survived! Naturally, if I really began to believe such a thing, of course I’d begin to feel fortunate. But it fails an ecology check because it doesn’t match the other evidence in my life.

Likewise, if I were to ask someone who knew us both, “Do you think it’s possible that she was a psycho killer?” If they knew her well, they might say, “Well, she was not all that good for you, but no, that’s a silly idea. She’s no murderer. Pscyho? Possibly, at times. A killer? No. Sure, she might want to kill you, but she doesn’t have the presence of mind to plan how to dispose of the body. Yeah, the evidence would be a problem for her.” Which as you can imagine, made me worry more about the person with whom I was alone in my living room than about my ex…

Our unconscious is aware of this even if we never ask that third person their opinion. Subsequently, that reframe would fail a “b.s.” test and we would be unchanged, still potentially believing that we just lost the love of our lives!

At the same time, the reframe does not have to be “true”, only seem reasonable.

To perform the reframe, first collect enough information to be aware of your (or someone else’s) full response to the experience. In other words, what is the meaning of the event or experience?

Next, ask “What else could this behavior or experience mean?” We’re not challenging the initial meaning, yet, only expanding the range of possibility. What we’re doing is expanding the frame, or creating a different frame of reference, perhaps one that actually reverses one of the presuppositions.

Then deliver the reframe itself. This will have sprung from the expanded thinking about the problem and reversing or altering the meaning so you (or the other person) can consider a broader perspective with a different meaning—one that we find more functional or useful.

As a demonstration, I invited a woman to the front of the training room, asking her to state a complaint about something in her life. “You don’t need to tell us the content–just form it in your mind for this exercise. If it’s easier to remain at the content level, go ahead. Just know that we respect your privacy and you don’t have to say it out loud if you’d rather not.”

She nodded, closed her eyes, then upon reopening them, looked at me. “Great,” I said, “So you know what happened and you know what it means, right?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Okay, now I want you to consider a question: ‘What else could this mean?'”

She furrowed her brow.

“I know, after thinking of it that way for what might have been a while, it’s often a little weird to expand a bit, grow by asking such a question. But bear with us. What else could it mean?”

She stood in silence for a minute, before her face lighting up.

“I’m interpreting, guessing, I admit, that you have thought of another possible meaning?”


“Okay, great. Remember, you’re not being asked to change anything at all, only to develop some more mental dexterity, some more control over your own options. Okay, one more question, that might seem weird and I promise that’s all! I know this has been unpleasant for you, knowing what that thing had meant, but what could be positive about this?”

Her brow again furrowed and she exhaled abruptly. I got the impression (remember that I can’t know for sure what her internal mental process is) that she was on the verge of overwhelm, that thinking of this experience in positive terms was asking too much.

Then a look of surprise came over her face. She laughed and looked at me. “Wow,” she said, “I didn’t expect that!”

“You see expanded possibilities now, don’t you?”

She nodded, rapidly.

I turned to the class and said, “When the answer comes, notice the ‘aha! moment’ where you just noticed something new. You now have a reframe that can empower you where before it may have merely frustrated you.”

I returned my attention to our volunteer and shared, “Note how she appears to feel differently about how she can choose to respond in the future. When you do this, it may be too abrupt a shift for the other person–or for you, if you’re doing this with yourself. I almost felt that had happened a moment ago, and was about to take the advice I’m now sharing with you: If it doesn’t work, you can deliver your ‘you notice the aha! moment, don’t you?” response more gradually.’ Some people prefer to have the “aha” moment, allow the reframe to expand their view more slowly. Then when it feels right, seems ecological, only then begin to ‘settle into’ the new awareness. Calibrate for changes in their physiology to know that something is happening…then let it.”

Oddly, perhaps, this doesn’t just happen in personal situations. Often in a professional circumstance, we find ourselves unsure about moving forward on a project. A smart negotiator can reframe the meaning for the other party to gently move it back on track. Just understand that we might expect immediate change, when for some, there is also an internal judgment of whether they should change. But once they begin to feel good about the reframed meaning, they will persuade themselves to make the shift. Calibration and sensory acuity are not merely your friends, they are invaluable tools for your use every day.

Though with new meaning comes new choices, new possibilities, and likely, new behaviors. Use this wisely with yourself and others to inspire growth, expansion and ultimately success, however you define that.

Copyright ©2014 Chris Gingolph

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