Reframing the Problem: Helping People Through Difficult times

'Look at the problem through a different lens'

‘The thorns which I have reaped are of the tree I planted’ Lord Byron, 1853-1937

I’ve been interested in the area of mental health for many years. A particular interest is around whether it’s possible to programme yourself to have a positive mental attitude.  Why do some people see the glass as half full while others bemoan events? Individuals overcome personal tragedies and subsequently prosper, while others get worn down and never fully recover. A key question is whether negative mental thinking becomes habitual?  It’s like the old joke about the guy who finds a wage packet but seems a bit downhearted. When his friend asks why, he says: “Look at the tax that was stopped”.

Playing Golf: All sport is an interesting blend of physical and mental prowess. In golf, there is usually something to moan about. The wind on the Bull Island can be similar to Mount Washington, tagged as the windiest place in the world.  It can be freezing cold, with the Irish ‘dampness’ that sneaks through however many layers of clothes you wear (some of the guys end up looking like the Michelin Man).  Even when weather conditions are favorable, you can still play crap and beat yourself up on the score. It’s interesting to observe how some people ‘overcome’ these challenges.

One old guy in the club always uses the line “Isn’t it great to be above ground”. In similar vein, his buddy (also very positive), remarks: “There’s plenty of people in Beaumont Hospital who would love to be here playing bad golf”.  In psychology this technique is referred to as reframing. With origins in family therapy, reframing helps people overcome limiting beliefs. Example: People with an addiction problem can feel as if they are helpless ‘victims’ of the disease rather than active participants in the resolution of this. Reframing is therefore a way to help people consider alternative possible futures.  Here’s a couple of examples to bring the point alive:

Employee Shares:  I recently met an executive who had lost €1 million+, because of a decline in the share price of his company.  To come up with that figure, he was calculating the top share price and comparing this to the current share price. When we worked it out (actual purchase price of the shares minus the tax treatment of the investment), his loss was closer to €140K.  Not a trivial amount, but easier to swallow than a million.

Attack Dog: My sister, a widow, felt that the big dog next door (American Akita) was going to attack her and eat her little dog (Miniature Yorkshire Terrier) if it managed to get over the back wall. Her son helped her to understand that (a) the dog cannot get over the high wall and (b) actually provides mega security along the back of her house; intruders would have to get past that dog to get into her garden. She has all of the benefits or a big dog, minus the hassle of looking after it. Now, she loves the dog being there.

Forced Redundancy: Losing a job you hate is a forced opportunity to retrain. I know that sounds a bit glib and there is all the worry and concern about getting a new job etc. but it can be the beginning of a powerful new chapter in your life.

Helping people to reframe what has happened to them is not an attempt to minimize their experience or make light of something that’s important. But it is a way of getting a sense of perspective about it.  And I have the perfect suggestion about who you should try this on. Yourself. Take a current dilemma that you’re working on in your own life and try it for size! It’s a really useful technique.

Political Sphere: Reframing also has a political connotation. When David Begg (ICTU) and Jack O’Connor (SIPTU) came up with the line that employers seeking pay cuts were leading a ‘race to the bottom’, it helped to shape a national debate and steel opposition to this. Looking in from the outside, it seemed to me that avoiding pay cuts (in the face of international competition) was a ‘race to the dole office’.  The central point is that language guides our thoughts and actions – as political leaders have known for centuries.

As managers and coaches, we can usefully deploy the same technique.  The message this week is simple.  Be careful of what you say. You could be talking yourself into a depression.

Paul Mooney

 PS Too Serious? How about this joke courtesy of John Mc Glynn (perhaps plagiarized from Our Boys?). Came home today to find all my doors and windows smashed in and everything gone. What sort of sick person does that to someone’s Advent calendar?

 Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact me and we’ll add them to the mailing list. 


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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