Counselling in Oxfordshire

Bill Imlah :: Counselling in Oxfordshire

Blog » Reframing - what is it and how do I use it in our work together?

28 Sep 2008

"I am firm, You are obstinate, He is a pig-headed fool."

"I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing."

"I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word."    

        - Bertrand Russell

In my work with you I sometimes use reframing to help create change new ways of looking at things   - a fresh perspective on the possible meaning or context of something you bring to our sessions  - a way to see it from a different angle, with the aim of helping to create a shift in feelings, perceptions or behaviour.

Though not always termed as such, reframing has been around at least since the 1940s, in the work of practitioners like Viktor Frankl and Milton Erickson.

Frankl, founder of Logotherapy, wrote:

"Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, "What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?:" "Oh," he said, "for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!" Whereupon I replied, "You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering  - to be sure. at the price that you have now to survive and mourn her." He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice" (Frankl, 1985, p135).

The term reframing came to wider prominence in the seventies and eighties, as one of the core techniques of Neuro Linguistic Programming. In that framework, two types of reframe are recognised:

  • Context reframe This is where a change in the surrounding circumstances can alter how a behaviour or attitude is perceived by the client. For example, Milton Erickson, an early exponent of this technique, when confronted with a client who complained that his daughter was too headstrong, was asked by Erickson “Now isn’t it good that she will be able to stand on her own two feet when she is ready to leave home?”. A change in context showed that what was seen as a weakness could also be seen as a strength.

  • Meaning reframe This is where the meaning of the behaviour itself is seen differently. For example, for a client whose overbearing partner complains that he walks too slowly, might benefit from a paraphrase where his partner walks too fast.  The reframe might be useful to help him realise that his viewpoint, and his needs, are are valid as his partner's.

Reframing can be particularly powerful when it creates a double-bind  - a situation where all the choices appear to the client to have become unacceptable, which can in the right circumstances  - when the client fully engages with the reframe  - precipitate a shift. 

For example, if I were working with someone whose overly strong sense of obligation and responsibility meant they felt overwhelmed by taking on more than they could manage, I might reframe that course of action as irresponsible (committing to tasks they couldn't deliver on) to help create a "productive confusion" in which one of these two perceptions (the action as both irresponsible and responsible) had to shift.


Frankl, V. 1985. Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press. 

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