There is a traditional Taoist story of an old farmer who owned a horse, which he used for transportation and for working his fields. His neighbors thought him quite wealthy because he owned a horse.
One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe”, the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses. He was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
At each turn of the story, the wise old farmer knew that whether the new event was good or bad depended entirely on a future context of what would happen next.
Imagine a situation where client brings you an issue or an opportunity. Through your feedback and questions, you help them pick it up, turn it over, look underneath it, look behind it, and help them develop a complete picture of the opportunity, and to gain a variety of perspectives on how best to approach it.
Great coaches do just that by assisting their clients in evaluating their existing context and envisioning new perspectives that could dramatically change how they might interpret and act on future events.
This act of helping clients conceive such a new context is called “reframing“. It literally means helping the client create a new frame of reference which will enable them to create a new set of possibilities for action. It is the ability to put a commonplace event in a new frame that is more useful, effective, or enjoyable. Why is this so important?
Reframing can be the pivotal element in the creative process.
When a coach incorporates reframing into a client discussion, the coach is helping the client see their own experience and resources from a new perspective. That new language enables a new solution. That is vastly more valuable to them than being handed a solution based solely on the consultant’s experience. Because the new frame is a refinement or extension of the client’s earlier work and insight, they will be much more motivated to embrace it and implement it.
So, then, what do great coaches need to deliver a successful reframe? What might we hear to gauge our level of success?
We need the depth of experience, knowledge and insight to help them explore what different frames might exist and how the available options might be different under those new frames. “This consultant had a broad understanding of my industry, and our challenges. His questions and responses reflected that depth.”
We need self-awareness of our own frames, biases, perspectives, and favored approaches. With that clear, we need to check our biases at the door. We need the patience to engage with our client in a process of curiosity, dialogue and discovery, before we drive straight to our preferred frame. “I did not feel this consultant was being honest with me. From the moment she walked in here, she was pushing for her solution.”
We need to be able to ask powerful questions that enable our client to see their existing frames and assess how well those frames are working for them. Wouldn’t you like your clients to say something like this?
“She asks lots of really provocative, relevant questions.”
We need the active listening skills to reflect back what we see and we hear in a way that helps the client become aware of their own existing frames. “When he feeds back what he heard, I see my questions and ideas in a new light. His feedback always produces more thought.”
Epilogue: In his outstanding book, Clients for Life, Jagdish Sheth sums up the power of framing this way:
“Framing is the essence of synthesis. It organizes and explains complex phenomena by reducing them to a few simple dimensions. A good frame (or framework) highlights the most relevant aspects of the issue or problem shows how they interrelate and then connects to your overarching purpose or goal.”
Wouldn’t you like to give that gift to your clients?