The Positive Reframing Approach

Great workers are often positive realists. They have a positive attitude but are also good at reading reality.

Some also have the ability to reframe situations and challenges in a positive way. They then do their best to achieve positive results.

Robert Muller, an Assistant General Secretary of the United Nations, was somebody who reframed challenging situations as a chance to find creative solutions. He had lots of opportunity to do this in his work at the United Nations.

Robert also adopted this approach as a student when he was hunted by the Nazis during the Second World War. One day he found himself trapped in an attic on the top floor of an hotel that also served as an office building.

Several Nazis entered the reception area and asked people where they could find Robert. How could he escape the hunters?

Drawing on his positive attitude to life, Robert began thinking of creative solutions. He explained his approach in the following way.

“I was a great fan of Hollywood films, so I decided to see the situation as taking part in a film. I was being hunted, so how could I find a way to escape?”

David Gillies takes up the story in his biography about Robert called The Hatmaker’s Son. Here are excerpts from David’s book.

Robert took several deep breaths.  

“I must overcome my fear and think rationally,” he decided. This was the moment of moments to be creative.  

“What an opportunity, what a tremendous adventure – a 20-year old student trapped by Nazis in a fancy hotel. Won’t it be great if I slip through their fingers?” 

Robert took a few minutes to consider his options. The Nazis had some idea what he looked like but they probably had an old photo. How could he take on a different persona?

The hunters were also expecting to find a cowering student trying to hide in the milling crowds on each floor of the building. How could he be ingenious and do what the Nazis least expected?

Robert settled on his plan and began translating it into action. This involved making his way down four floors from the attic and walking out onto the street.

Putting a thick file under his arm, he exuded an air of authority as he made his way from floor to floor. Nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, he passed various groups of people.

Reaching the ground floor he approached a group of Nazis who were quizzing the receptionist. She chose not to recognise him, even though she was being threatened.

Robert went up to the Nazis and asked what was happening. They replied they were looking for Louis Parizot (the name by which Robert was known in the building).

He responded by saying he had seen Parizot on the top floor. Just like in a film, the Nazis rushed up the stairs. Robert then made his way out onto the street and rode away on a bike.

Robert faced many challenges in life, but he tried to see things in perspective. During a time spent in prison he focused on how he could appreciate life and give to others.

Strongly influenced by his parents and grandparents, he aimed to help others and build a better world. He continued to apply this approach throughout his life.

Thankful for the love he had been given, Robert kept returning to this positive philosophy. Even in the darkest hours, he had a sense of gratitude. He then applied his skills to help people to build on what they had in common and positive solutions.

People who reframe things often refire their imagination. This enables them to be inventive, implement new ideas and have a positive impact. Let’s look at this approach.

People love to use their imagination. They love to explore, imagine possibilities and then sometimes make these happen.

Some people find the daily grind stops them using their imagination. Like any muscle that is not used, their imagination can whither. This can have a detrimental effect on both their inner and outer life.

Imagine that you are helping an individual, team or organisation to shape their future. This may simply involve clarifying the obvious strategies they can follow to achieve success.

Sometimes it may involve inviting them to use their imagination. One approach is to encourage them to go through the following steps.

Reframing things to look at the possibilities;

Refiring their imagination to explore the possibilities;

Refocusing their energies to pursue some of the possibilities and deliver the desired results.

This approach has been used by many people to translate difficult situations into opportunities. You can apply it in your own way to help individuals, teams and organisations to develop.

Imagination is one of our greatest assets. As mentioned earlier, however, the first step is often to reframe situations in a positive way. Let’s explore some more ways to make this happen.

Reframing Things As A Chance
To Build On Your Strengths

Some people take this approach after experiencing a setback. They see it an opportunity to build on their strengths and follow their successful style of working.

During the 2008 Recession, for example, I worked with many companies that chose to refocus on their strengths. They asked the basic questions:

If we were to start the business again:

What would we do to build on our strengths and achieve sustainable success?

What would be the specific products and services we would offer to our customers? Who would be our perfect customers and what would be the specific challenges they would be facing? What would we do to build on our strengths and do great work that helped these customers to achieve success?

Who would be the people we would hire? What would be the infrastructure we would need? What else would we do to help our customers and ourselves to achieve success?

Some companies used the recession as an opportunity to go back to basics. This laid the foundations for future success.

Reframing Things As Projects

Some people take the emotion out a situation by reframing them as projects. Bearing in mind what that can control, they focus on:

The specific results they want to achieve;

The specific strategies they can follow to do their best achieve these results.

This is an approach I learned many years ago when reading about Ken Kesey. A leading figure in the counter-culture movement, he was said to have treated events as projects. One person reported that Ken even saw his approach to dying as a project.

This approach was helpful when I was fortunate to get an early diagnosis of prostate cancer. After a short while, it was possible to reframe it as a project. The aims were:

To do research and get the best non-invasive treatment;

To produce a blog that helped other men to get such treatment;

To continue to enjoy life and give to people.

Fortunately I was treated by some of the best surgeons in the world who did superb work and helped with the recovery. The blog also reached men who then chose to have non-invasive treatment. The journey also helped me to appreciate life and give to people. A good project.

Reframing Fallow Times As Fruitful Times

People can sometimes experience a sense of flow when doing a stimulating piece of work or project. They enjoy setting specific goals, doing superb work and achieving success.

This is a process I have seen when working with driven people, start-ups and peak performing teams. They have sense of purpose and work hard to achieve their picture of success.

Finishing can bring a great deal of satisfaction but can be followed by a sense of emptiness. People had a reason to get up each day and they want to fill this void. One person expressed this in the following way.

“I love working on a rewarding project. But after completing the job I sometimes go into the doldrums.

“I am then tempted to jump into the next project, even though it may not be too stimulating. Sometimes it takes ages to find a new project that is satisfying.”

Great workers sometimes experience fallow times. Let’s explore how it can be possible to make good use of such times.

Recognising The Fallow Times

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow showed how a person can become completely absorbed in an activity. He explained that people then have a sense of purpose and do stimulating work on the way to achieving their picture of success.

Reaching the goal is satisfying, but this can be followed by a sense of frustration. It may be difficult to find the next adventure where they will experience a sense of flow.

At these times it can be useful to remember the agricultural tradition of allowing a field to lie fallow. The pasture can rest, recover and become revitalised.

Some creative artists recognise the value of giving themselves permission to be fallow. Providing these times are used properly, fallow times can be fruitful times.

Making Good Use Of The Fallow Times

People can be vulnerable during the fallow times. They may have completed a satisfying project, sold a company they built or fulfilled another dream.

Looking for a new sense of purpose, they can sometimes feel empty. Because of this searching, they are open to the influences around them. They may feel a vacuum inside, but this can open the door to ensuring that such times becoming fruitful times.

People do like to feel in control, however, so it can be useful for them to set their agenda. Even if this is simply to say:

“I am going to give myself permission to explore  rather than strive to find the next project.”

People who are open can benefit by surrounding themselves with positive – rather than negative – influences. Exposing themselves to enriching experiences can sow the seeds of future growth.

Imagine that you experienced such a fallow time. What would you like to surround yourself with at such times? You may wish to sleep, visit beautiful places, walk by the sea, spend time with kindred spirits, play your favourite music, study success or whatever.

Moving On From The
Fallow Times To Flow

People who surround themselves with enriching experiences often find that a stimulating project emerges. Some may be cautious, however, and wonder if the new project is the right thing to do.

They wonder if they will recapture their previous sense of purpose. There is no perfect answer to these questions. When looking at the stimulating project that emerges, it can be useful for them to consider the following themes.

Will doing the project give me positive energy? Will doing it give me a chance to follow my personal or professional principles? Will doing it help people or the planet?

If the answers are “Yes,” it can be useful to seize the opportunity. The touchstone is whether or not it gives them positive energy.

Making good use of the fallow times increases the chances of choose a stimulating project. Embarking on the adventure, they can then flow, focus and finish.

Reframing Limits

Looking back at your life, when have you felt liberated by having limits? You may have had only a few materials to work with, but you used these as the springboard for being creative.

What did you do to assess your resources? What did you do to set a specific goal, do superb work and find solutions to challenges? How did you do your best to achieve your picture of success?

Creative people often do their best work when dealing with limits. Some gardeners prefer to work within the confines of a small garden rather than in a big field. Some writers prefer to be given a topic to write about rather than given a blank page. Some

One teacher explained this to me in the following way. He encouraged me to focus on what I did have rather than worry about what I didn’t have. He said:

“You are lucky, because you are only good at a couple of things. You can focus on making full use of these talents.

“People who are good at many things can sometimes feel split. They fail to commit and don’t make use of their talents.”

Looking to the future, can you think of a situation when you may choose to feel liberated by limits? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You may be limited by having few strengths or resources. You may have limited amounts of time or money. You there may also be other factors that you cannot control.

Looking ahead, how can you clarify your resources? How can you settle on your specific goals? How can you use your imagination to do superb work? How can you find creative solutions to challenges? How can you do your best to achieve success?

Reframing Vulnerability
As A Chance To Develop

Vulnerability can be a great teacher. Sometimes we learn valuable lessons about what is important in life.

Sometimes wisdom seeps into our bones and we apply the lessons in our daily lives. Other times we forget the messages. Let’s explore what we can gain from such times.

Can you think of a time when you felt vulnerable? You may have suffered a debilitating illness, lost someone close, experienced an unexpected setback or whatever.

Suddenly you felt out of control. You felt unable to shape everything in your world. Certainly you aimed to control the controllables, but many levers lay beyond your reach.

What did you do next? After a while you may have begun to reflect, go deeper and listen to your soul. We are told:

“Everything is temporary, nothing is permanent.”

But it is when we feel vulnerable that this lesson strikes home. We have chance to consider what is important on life.

Brené Brown is a researcher who reached a wide audience with her famous TED Talk about vulnerability. Looking at people who had demonstrated courage by embracing vulnerability, she also asked:

“What are the qualities demonstrated by people who live wholeheartedly?”

Whole-hearted people are prepared to be real and live with their imperfections. They focus on joy and gratitude. They embrace the concept of abundance and love to give to others. They give themselves to life and are prepared to live with uncertainty.

Brené believes that people often grow from worthwhile struggles. She has written about how such people live wholeheartedly in her book Daring Greatly.

Sometimes we learn about our deepest values during times of vulnerability. Sometimes we also apply these lessons in the future. Here is how one person explained this approach.

“My wife suffered a serious illness. Then, to make matters worse, my job came under threat. So our income was threatened.

“My first reaction was to simply want everything to be like it was before. But then I realised that things had changed forever. We could give up or learn to manage the new reality.

“Starting to research my wife’s illness, we scoured the web for information and met with patient groups. This paid dividends. She eventually chose a specific form of treatment with a fine doctor.

“We also took stock of our assets – our finances, relationships, professional contacts and other resources. We soon realised how wealthy we were in real terms.

“We explored the possibility of downshifting. This would mean moving to another part of the country, perhaps near my wife’s parents, and starting a different kind of life.

“My wife recovered and the job survived. But we also heeded the lessons.

“One year later we moved closer to her parents. She returned to part time teaching, which she loves, and I set up my own business.

“Our daughter likes living in the country and has started doing part time work at a stable. Our son changed his chosen subjects at university. Rediscovering his youthful idealism, he plans to become an environmental journalist.”

“Near death experiences focus our minds,” we are told. Our deepest learning is in our bones not just our hearts or minds. Setbacks can teach us to re-evaluate our lives.

Sometimes we embrace the lessons, sometimes we don’t. Sages throughout history have journeyed into the wilderness to overcome hardship. They emerge humbler, stronger and wiser.

Sometimes, however, the wilderness comes to us. We then gather our forces, focus on what we can do and embrace lessons for the future. Successes help us to grow, but so do setbacks. Sometimes we can reframe it as a chance to follow our deepest principles.

Looking ahead, can you think of a situation where you may want to take this approach? What can you do to reframe things in a positive way and then do your best to achieve positive results?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to complete the following sentences.

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