Problems? What Problems? I Have Opportunities: The Art of Re-framing

Most of us have problems. I know! Shocking isn't it? And whenever it seems like one problem gets taken care of, we have another one that sprouts up in its place.

I had a conversation with a friend once who, while engaged in a lively debate about the purpose of life, queried, "for what would life be if not a series of problems?"

I got to admit, I ran with his logic for a long time. I always had problems. People at work were a problem. Stuff at home was a problem. My love life, well that was more like a Charlie Foxtrot on usual occasions.

Simply put, I was always worrying about something.

Then I got a summer job two years back teaching high school students about my chosen field of intelligence analysis. While the kids, and the staff, got to go to a lot of cool places and here speeches from a lot of inspiring people, the greatest lesson I learned that summer came from staff training. The concept of re-framing.

What Is Framing?

While I wish I was referring to the act of professionally putting pictures and documents into frames, this framing is more mental.

Framing is a type of cognitive bias that we develop over time. And while we like to say that we look at each situation individually, we are inclined to put the situations into frames. A common example of a frame would be a stereotype. A preconceived notion about a situation is just as common as a cultural stereotype.

So, for a practical example, say you are about to get out of the office on a Friday and your boss lays down a memo that needs to be filed before you leave. Your boss has assured you that it will take no more than a few minutes to take care of (it's a small file), but the last time your boss gave you a file in this situation, it ended up taking you an hour to get it done. You left the office thirty minutes late.

Looking at the example, we can see how you would set a negative frame to this request from your boss.

Now, you could stay mad and go home and have a horrible Friday night or, you could re-frame the situation.


Why does a problem feel like a problem? Because we have framed the word problem into a negative thing over the course of our life.

Is the filing request a problem? Sure it is, because that's the way you think it is.

I would offer a counter point. See the filing request as an opportunity to work on your filing speed.

Flight gets delayed? That could be a problem for the Cleavland office but for you it's a chance to get in touch with a client and discuss some business with them, or a chance to pull out the laptop and get started on that sales report that is due tomorrow.

I could offer numerous examples and people have rebuffed me with some of the oddest situations, just to try and prove that it doesn't work.

And, in all honesty, re-framing doesn't work for everyone. You have to be willing to look at what comes your way in a somewhat positive light. Sure, you won't see it that way to begin with, but as you look at the anatomy of the problem, you can map out how it will become an opportunity.

Can You Do It?

I bet you can! For anyone that reads this, I challenge you to take one problem in your life and simply try and turn it into an opportunity. While there is no guarantee that your can solve all of your problems by trying to re-frame, what's the harm in trying it for at least one problem that's plaguing you?

Post some comments and let me know how re-framing has helped, if you'd like. I'd love to hear about it.


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Tags: bias, cognitive, problem, self-help, solving


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Comment by Native Son on January 3, 2010 at 10:20am
This fits in with a couple of aphorisms I've heard.
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it shows up in overalls and looks like work."
-Thomas Alva Edison
"Problems are only opportunities in work clothes."
-Henry J. Kaiser

I can't give you any specific examples of how re-framing has helped. That's mostly becasue most of my job consists of re-framing problems/questions into usable opportunities.

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