How Language Frames Experience

Words not only represent our experience, but, frequently they 'frame' our experience. Words frame our experience by bringing certain aspects of it into the foreground and leaving others in the background. Consider the connective words "but," "and," and "even though," for example. When we connect ideas or experiences together with these different words, they lead us to focus our attention on different aspects of those experiences. If a person says, "It is sunny today but it will rain tomorrow," it leads us to focus more on the concern that it will be raining tomorrow, and to mostly neglect the fact that it is sunny today. If someone connects the same two expressions with the word "and"—i.e., "It is sunny today and it will be raining tomorrow"— the two events are equally emphasized. If someone says, "It is sunny today even though it will rain tomorrow," the effect is to focus our attention more on the first statement—that it is sunny today—leaving the other in the background.

It is sunny Today It is sunny today It is sunny today but and even though it will rain tomorrow it will rain tomorrow it will rain tomorrow

Certain Words Trame' Our Experiences, Bringing Different Aspects of the into the Foreground

This type of verbal framing and "re-framing" will occur regardless of the contents being expressed. For example, the statements: "I am happy today but I know it will not last;" "I am happy today and I know it will not last;" "I am happy today even though I know it will not last;" create shifts in emphasis similar to the statements about the weather. The same is true with the statements: UI want to reach my outcome but I have a problem;" "I want to reach my outcome and I have a problem;" "I want to reach my outcome even though I have a problem."

When some structure applies across different contents in this way, we call it a pattern. Some people, for instance, have a habitual pattern in which they are constantly dismissing the positive side of their experience with the word "but."

This type of verbal framing can greatly influence the way we interpret and respond to particular statements and situations. Consider the following statement, *You can do whatever you want to, if you are willing to work hard enough."* This is a very affirming and empowering belief. It connects two significant portions of experience in a type of cause-and-effect relationship: "doing whatever you want to" and "working hard enough." "Doing what you want to" is something that is very motivating. "Working hard" is not so desirable. Because the two have been linked together, however, with the statement that "you can do whatever you want to" in the foreground, it creates a strong sense of motivation, connecting a dream or wish with the resources necessary to make it happen.

Notice what happens if you reverse the order of the statement and say, "If you are willing to work hard enough, you can do whatever you want to." Even though this statement uses the exact same words, its impact is diminished somewhat, because the willingness to "work hard" has been placed in the foreground sequentially. It seems more like an attempt to convince somebody to work hard than an affirmation that "you can do whatever you want to." In this second framing, "doing what you want" appears to be more of a reward for "working hard." In the first statement, the willingness to "work hard" was framed as an internal resource for "doing what you want to." This difference, while subtle, can make a significant impact on how the message is received and understood.

x Many thanks to Teresa Epstein for this example.

The 'Even Though' Reframe

Identifying verbal patterns can allow us to create linguistic tools which can help to shape and influence the meaning we perceive as a result of our experience. An example is the 'even though' reframe. This pattern is applied by simply substituting the words "even though" for the word "but" in any sentence in which the word "but" is being used to diminish or discount some positive experience.

Try it out using the following steps:

1. Identify a statement in which a positive experience is 'discounted' by the word "but."

e.g., "I found a solution to my problem, but it could come back again later."

2. Substitute the words "even though" for the word "but," and notice how it shifts the focus of your attention.

e.g., "I found a solution to my problem, even though it could come back again later."

This structure allows people to maintain a positive focus and still satisfy the need to keep a balanced perspective. I have found this technique to be quite powerful for people who have a tendency to the "Yes, but.. ." type of pattern.

Chapter 2

Frames and Retraining


A psychological "frame" refers to a general focus or direction that provides an overall guidance for thoughts and actions during an interaction. In this sense, frames relate to the cognitive context surrounding a particular event or experience. As the term implies, a "frame" establishes the borders and constraints surrounding an interaction. Frames greatly influence the way that specific experiences and events are interpreted and responded to because of how they serve to 'punctuate' those experiences and direct attention. A painful memory, for example, may loom as an all-consuming event when perceived within the short term frame of the five minutes surrounding the event. That same painful experience may seem almost trivial when perceived against the background of one's lifetime. Frames also help to make interactions more efficient because they determine which information and issues fall within or outside of the purpose of an interaction.

A "time frame" is a common example of framing. Setting a time frame of ten minutes for a meeting or exercise, for example, greatly influences what can be accomplished in that meeting. It determines where people will focus their attention, what topics and issues are appropriate for them to include in the interaction, and the type and degree of effort they will exert. A time frame of one hour or three hours for the same meeting or exercise would create quite different dynamics. Shorter time frames tend to focus people on tasks, while longer time frames open up the possibility for people to also focus on developing relationships. If a time limit of 15 minutes has been set for a meeting, it is more likely that the meeting will be interpreted as being task-oriented rather than as an open-ended, exploratory brainstorming session.

Some common "frames" in NLP include the "outcome" frame, the "as if frame and the "feedback versus failure"

frame. The basic emphasis of the outcome frame, for instance, is to establish and maintain focus on the goal or desired state. Establishing an Outcome Frame involves evaluating any activity or information with respect to its relevance to the achievement of a particular goal or desired state.

Frame e.g.. An "outcome" Frame

Frames Direct Attention and Influence How Events are


An "outcome frame" may be usefully contrasted with a "problem frame." A problem frame places the emphasis on "what is wrong" or what is "not wanted," as opposed to what is desired or "wanted." A problem frame leads to a focus on undesired symptoms and the search for their causes. In contrast, an outcome frame leads to a focus on desired outcomes and effects, and the resources required to attain them. Thus, an Outcome Frame involves staying solution focused and oriented toward positive possibilities in the future.

Topics which are 'inside" the frame

Topics which are "outside" the frame

What do you want? How can you get it? What resources are available?

Outcome Frame

Problem Frame What is wrong?

Why is it a problem?

What caused it? Whose fault is it?

Comparison of 'Outcome Frame' With 'Problem Frame'

The application of the Outcome Frame involves such tactics as reformulating problem statements to goal statements, and refraining negatively worded descriptions to those which are stated in positive terms. From the NLP perspective, for instance, all problems can be reperceived as challenges, or "opportunities" to change, grow or learn. Seen in this way, all "problems" presuppose desired outcomes. If someone says, "My problem is that I am afraid of failure," it can be assumed that there is an implied goal to "be confident that I am going to succeed." Similarly, if there is a problem such as "profits are down," it can be assumed that the outcome is to "increase profits."

People often unintentionally state their outcomes negatively, such as: "I want to avoid embarrassment," "I want to quit smoking," "I want to get rid of this interference," etc. Doing so places the focus of attention back onto the problem, and, paradoxically, often forms embedded suggestions in relation to the problem state. Thinking, "I want to not be so afraid," actually carries the suggestion "be afraid" as part of the thought itself. Maintaining an Outcome Frame would involve asking, "What do you want?" or "If you were not so afraid, what would you be feeling instead?"

While it is important to examine symptoms and their causes as part of effective problem solving, it is also important to do so in the context of reaching a desired state. If not, the exploration of the symptoms and causes will not lead to any solution. When the outcome, or desired state, remains the focus of information gathering, then solutions may often be found even if the problem state is not fully understood.

Other NLP "frames" operate in a similar manner. The focus of the "as if frame is on acting 'as if one has already achieved the desired goal or outcome. A feedback versus failure frame places attention on how seeming problems, symptoms or mistakes can be interpreted as feedback, which helps to make corrections leading to a desired state, rather than as failures.

Perhaps the most fundamental goal of applying the verbal patterns of Sleight of Mouth is to help people to shift their perspective 1) from a problem frame to an outcome frame, 2) from a failure frame to a feedback frame, and 3) from an impossibility frame to an 'as if frame. The examples of the police officer, psychiatrist, doctor, coach, etc., provided at the beginning of this book, are all illustrations of shifting the frame from which some circumstance or event was being perceived. The psychiatrist, doctor, supportive uncle, mother, and coach, all helped to shift the perception of a situation that was being experienced as a "problem" or "failure" so that it was placed inside of an "outcome" or "feedback" frame. Attention was shifted from the 'problem' to the 'outcome', opening up new possibilities. (Even the police officer identifying herself as a "television repairman," is a metaphoric way of shifting to an outcome and feedback frame - placing emphasis on "repairing" what is wanted rather than "getting rid or what is not wanted.)

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