A client of mine recently told me he had had it up to here with his colleagues’ complaining. Though he was able to commiserate with the colleagues, he felt exasperated about having the same “vent sessions” over and over again. “What do I tell these guys when they keep complaining about the same issues? I don’t want to turn into one of those people who just doles out advice, but it’s also becoming a waste of my time to sit there and continually listen to the same messages.”

This is when I introduced the idea of reframing – a model used to turn a negative comment into a neutral or constructive comment. So, “My staff makes horrible presentations in front of clients,” becomes, “So I hear you saying that you’d like your staff to give more professional presentations to clients.” The conversation that ensues from there can be focused on brainstorming solutions, rather than listening to more complaints.

Here are some different kinds of reframing:

Removing toxic language: “We absolutely hate your suggestions and think it will bring problems to our team,” gets reframed into “It sounds like you would like to keep your team’s needs in mind.”

From positions to interests: “I cannot support the changes you are suggesting,” gets reframed into

“What I hear you saying is that you’d like to talk about more choices for improving this project.”

From negative to positive: “Why do we have to sit around in these committee meetings? There’s never an outcome anyway” gets reframed to, “So I hear you saying you’d like to see more results out of these meetings?”

The most important part of using reframing is to put any defensiveness you have aside and really listen for the message behind the message. Most people get stuck in the speaker’s negativity, which results in being turned off to the person which then results in ignoring and avoiding them. Though this is a natural reaction, it keeps you from getting past the “&^%#@” to really understand the issues. The only way to do this is to have empathy for the speaker and see him/her as someone who really has something important to say and doesn’t know how to express it constructively. It can also be that the person wants to see change but has no idea where to begin. Though the delivery may not be appealing, the message is usually important.

Though using reframing feels a bit unnatural at first, it can become a useful habit that helps us better understand others.

A great little book I recommend on reframing and other techniques for resolving conflict is “All I want is a Little Peace: Resolving Conflict by Finding Common Ground” by Dr. Jackie Ryle.