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How Changing the “Frame” Can Help Reshape Experiences with Colleagues

Imagine the following scenario: You are assigned to a new team for a project and while most of your new teammates are easy-going and friendly people, one person seems somewhat disagreeable. When you are late to work by a couple of minutes, your colleagues don’t seem to notice or joke lightly about your tardiness, whereas this person tells your straight up that being late is unacceptable. Upon completion of an important assignment, you get congratulated by your teammates – except for this one person who after a quick “Good job” goes on to tell you about every single mistake you made and how it devalued your work.

In a situation like this, you are tempted to think “That person always picks on me! He/she must hate me.” What happens next – whether you decide to confront your colleague or seek to avoid any contact with him/her, etc. – is going to be based on your assumption that this colleague dislikes you. However, do you know for sure that your conclusion about the whole situation is right? There are numerous possible reasons why your co-worker acted this way. Maybe they are a very direct person who gives an opinion equally straightforwardly to everyone, not just you. Or they are the type of person to whom rules are important. Alternatively, perhaps your colleague thought of the feedback as their trying to be a good teammate and help you avoid trouble for being late in the future, or help you improve by pointing out things that you didn’t get exactly right on your assignment. Assuming that a colleague hates you can stress you out to the point where you can no longer focus on doing your job properly because you’re constantly worrying and thinking about it.

This is just one example of how differing viewpoints, communication approaches and behavioral styles come between people and create divides. The bottom line is that we all fall victim to faulty assumptions from time to time. We create assumptions for everything that we come into contact with; our brains are wired to interpret the things that we experience through different frames of mind, ultimately either broadening or restricting the scope of our comprehension. In any given situation we can use a single frame to look at a problem and mistakenly consider it to be the only right frame. If you don’t think this happens all of the time, consider a situation where you went to see a movie with a friend or loved one. Maybe that person hated the movie and you thought it was a terrific one. How can you see things so differently when they see the same thing you are viewing? Because we frame our own filters around things. Maybe your friend hates it when there is no happy ending, but you appreciate how the director managed to create the final, sad scene.

In the same way, we can view problems with our own “angle” or frame on it. We may not believe it, but it is possible to change our perception of various issues by switching frames, a process that is also known as “reframing” or “cognitive restructuring.”

The term “cognitive restructuring” was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis to help define a behavioral technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Today, cognitive restructuring and reframing are frequently used interchangeably to illustrate how people who are adversely affected by a particular situation which they cannot influence can alter their perception of it, which in turn can make things seem more tolerable to them.

In a workplace setting, where at times it is necessary to work with people that we don’t always get along with, reframing is a particularly useful skill to have. It can be used to look at someone’s behavior that we respond to subjectively (and negatively!) and shift that perception to a more objective (and positive) one in order to facilitate understanding of the said behavior. Reframing also modifies our emotional state by de-emphasizing our feelings and focusing our thoughts on interpretation of something more objective – fact-based instead of feeling- or thought-based. Using reframing techniques we can reshape a problem into an opportunity, hostility into misunderstanding, and a deadlock into a breakthrough. By managing our negative thoughts and subsequent antipathetic responses, we can learn to better understand others’ point of view and accept it as valid.

Reframing problems does not come easy or naturally to most people; it takes time, conscious effort and consistent practice. The following few pieces of advice will help you master the ability to reframe any negative situation and, consequently, facilitate more fulfilling, stress- and conflict-free relations with other people.

  1. Develop your awareness of frames. Most people don’t even realize they assign meanings to events as they encounter them. Furthermore, these meanings are strictly subjective; what one person may see as a difficult problem, the other person may consider to be just a mild inconvenience, and yet another a major, life-changing event. Everyone has the filters they have accumulated and these filters help dictate our reactions and experiences. Realizing we have filters and frames that connect to them is the first and most important step.
  2. Take a step back from a problem. Reframing is impossible in a state of deep emotional attachment, because the more strongly we feel a certain way about something, the more reluctant we are to relinquish our assumptions about it. Distancing ourselves from a situation will allow us to judge any problem more objectively, as observers and not participants. Considering only facts can help avoid undue stress that emotions usually bring forth.
  3. Challenge yourself to find alternatives. Different people will use different frames of mind to form valid perceptions of a problem, but even within one person many frames can have equal validity. Considering alternative frames can help assign new meanings to the events, thus modifying our perceptions of various experiences.
  4. Stop negative self-talk. While a problem itself may not pose a significant challenge, oftentimes our subsequent self-criticism can exaggerate its gravity to unrealistic proportions. The majority of people are not even aware that their negative self-talk creates a new reality, which has little to do with an actual event. How we word things does matter, and when we think negatively about something, we tend to use stronger language, which in turn can make us feel more apprehensive, angry or annoyed. So instead of thinking “I hate my job” or “I am such a failure,” it is better to use more euphemistic expressions like “Today was not a good day but tomorrow I’ll give it my best.”
  5. Practice, practice! Changing our customary beliefs and attitudes is not an easy task, but just like everything else – practice makes perfect. The more we practice noticing the frames that we use to make assumptions, detecting negative thinking patterns and adopting alternative frames of mind, the more positive our outlook on work and life in general will eventually become.