No.7 – “Setting the frame”

A particularly useful communication concept of NLP is called framing. Framing is about the focus being set by the choice of words used in any type of communication. Whether it’s in a presentation, a meeting, a coaching session or a written report, every sentence and question has the potential to set
a certain frame. You might notice a very strong connection to an earlier edition of Top Tips (No. 1 – ‘What’s your real question?’) which discussed the idea that “a question presupposes the structure of its answer.”

When two or more people have a similar frame of reference, the likelihood is that understanding and rapport are enhanced. Familiarity with the process of ‘framing’ will enable you to influence what your audience pays attention to, the likely direction of a conversation, and the usefulness and relevance of
their responses or outputs.

The concept of framing can be used to get the best results and to cause people to pay attention to the things you want them to pay attention to – as opposed to what you don’t want.

For example, a manager who explains a task to a team member as ‘a task that never seems to get done’ has (albeit unintentionally) framed the task as potentially difficult or unimportant. The recipient of this message may take those words, process them, and perhaps put the task at the bottom of their
list – never to get done.

The problem frame

In general, our business culture is more biased towards problem-solving, especially in the context of change initiatives. The problem frame concentrates on the past – what went wrong and why, who did what, and so on. This usually results in focusing on the negative. Within a problem frame, the typical questions asked will be:

· What is the problem?
· How long have we had the problem?
· Why are we in this state and whose fault is it?
· Why hasn’t it been solved yet?

Apart from the potential learning available from identifying past mistakes, most of these questions do not fundamentally help in resolving the issue. Indeed, another, more subtle, type of ‘problem frame’ is where you inadvertently create a misplaced focus of attention or deliver the opposite message to the
one you intended

Remember Richard Nixon? He found that out the hard way when he stood before the nation said, “I am not a crook” – and everybody thought about him as a crook!
So, when faced with a ‘problem frame’ we need a strategy to turn it round. The first and simplest way to do this is to ask “So what do we want instead (of the problem)?” One of the skills of leaders and facilitators is to keep a meeting focused, despite whatever may be the natural patterns of the

The outcome frame

The outcome frame, also known as the solutions frame, focuses on the future. It concentrates on achieving the desired outcome and the attention is on what is wanted and how to get there. This usually leads to a more positive focus, and questions such as:

· What do we want?
· How will we know when we have got it?
· What is the purpose?
· How can we make it happen?
· What resources do we have and need?

To establish a frame, you need to understand what the other party’s values are, and what’s important to them. For example…

When a Toyota executive asked employees to brainstorm “ways to increase their productivity”, all he got back were blank stares. When he rephrased his request as “ways to make their jobs easier”, he could barely keep up with the amount of suggestions.

Words carry strong implicit meaning and, as such, play a major role in how we perceive a problem. In the example above, ‘be productive’ might seem like a sacrifice you’re making for the company, while ‘make your job easier’ may be more like something you’re doing for your own benefit, but from which the company also benefits. In the end, the problem is still the same, but the feelings — and the points of view — associated with each of them are vastly different.

To create an effective outcome frame, play freely with the initial problem statement, rewording it several times. For example take single words and substitute variations – instead of ‘increase sales’ try replacing ‘increase’ with ‘attract’, ‘develop’, ‘extend’, ‘repeat’ and see how your perception of the
problem changes.

Other very useful business frames include…

The Out Frame – which defines what is not to be included in a particular intervention. For example… “I understand that ‘X’ is something that must be addressed in a future discussion, but at the moment we need to focus on ‘Y’”

The ‘As if’ Frame – which provides a way to create more choices and/or options for action by switching perceptual position, time, possibility instead of impossibility etc.

Final thought

Suppose the government is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed, and you must choose which one you think is better. These are the estimates of the outcomes for each program:

Program A: 200 people will be saved.
Program B: There’s a ⅓ chance that 600 people will be saved and a ⅔ chance that no people will be

Now suppose that, instead of those two programs above, you’ve been presented with the following two programs instead. As in the previous situation, pick the one you think is better.

Program C: 400 people will die.
Program D: There’s a ⅓ chance that nobody will die, and a ⅔ chance that 600 people will die.

Which programs did you pick? This question was asked in a famous experiment by Tversky and Kahneman (which led to a Nobel Prize for Kahneman), with 72% of participants choosing option A over B, and 78% choosing D over C.

The fact is, as you’ve probably noticed, programs A and C are identical, as are programs B and D. They’re objectively the same — the same numbers of people live and die, with the same odds — but they’re presented — or framed — in different ways!

So, in essence the skill of framing is quite simple – decide what you want the other party to pay attention to, and frame your communication in such a way that this becomes the most likely outcome!

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  1. very insightful. a different approach from the traditional thinking on problem solving

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