REFRAMING FOR PLEASURE AND PROFIT

An old friend of mine rang the other night in an urgent tone of voice and told me to turn the TV onto Channel 4.  I dutifully reached for the remote control – and found myself watching a documentary about ‘attachment parenting’. I’ll spare you the details, but those readers familiar with the C4 oeuvre will have guessed that it featured a bunch of apparently mentally deranged hippies whose offspring never wore nappies, don’t go to school, and are breast fed till the age of 43.   The reason for my friend’s excitement was that one of the parents in this documentary – let’s call him ‘Gary’ (it is his name after all) - had been at college with us.  I was just in time to catch Gary describing how he had recently suffered from conjunctivitis, as a treatment for which he lay on the floor while his wife crouched over him and squirted breast milk in his eye. 

This started me thinking – not about a new service line for the NHS, nor about how glad I am I never had cornflakes at his house; but about how everything has two sides. The hysterical laughter of incredulous viewers (surely that could never have been the programme maker’s intention?) was more than matched by the conviction of every interviewee that their approach was the best possible approach to parenting.  But who is right?  I do various things in my own leisure time (don’t get excited, they’re all legal and mainly involve railway maps) which my clients would doubtless find highly risible.  Teenagers regard those with different musical tastes from their own as social pariahs.  And in the workplace, anyone who sees the world differently from you is immediately classified as a ‘difficult person’.

One thing that seems to drive everyone mad about management consultants is the way we take advantage of this dualism through our relentless capacity for ‘reframing’.  In personal development, this usually means choosing to reinterpret anything that happens to you as positive, making every half empty glass appear half full.  There is, however, one thing consultants need to reframe in the other direction: our relentlessly optimistic expectation that the rest of humanity is as well disposed towards reframing as we are. 

When our children were small, my wife and I attempted to survive on two hours’ sleep a night.  I’d just finished writing a book chapter on the topic of positive thinking. Keen to put it into practice, I got into the habit of thinking of myself as someone for whom two hours was more than enough.  In a spirit of charity, as my wife was wholeheartedly expressing her despair at another broken night, I ventured:

There’s a technique that could help you with this.”

Really?”

Yes. All you need to do is get into the habit of saying to yourself: ‘I’m the kind of person who doesn’t need a lot of sleep.”

Why would I say that?”

Because then you’ll feel better.”

But it’s not true.”

No, I know, but you would make it true through repetition.”

No I wouldn’t.  I know that I need a lot of sleep.”

Yes, but if you suggest the opposite –“

Then I’d be wasting my time.”

I’m skipping about twenty minutes of the conversation, but you get the idea.  Fourteen years’ later, after similar conversations with workshop participants, I have had to admit to myself the fact that cannot be reframed: most humans prefer fatalism to positive thinking.  There are, I’ve no doubt, complex psycho-neurological reasons for this, none of which are much help when you’re trying to feel positive about banging your head against a brick wall (“How marvellous: a chance for me to explore the existential nature of frustration!”)

There is a serious point to this.  The average leader spends large amounts of his or her time driving through change of one kind or another.  And change is hard for the individual on the receiving end to reframe.  So the typical change initiative will inspire much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who perceive themselves as having no ownership or control over the situation.  Those leading the change see a wave of emotional energy racing towards them, about to break over their heads.  In the workplace (and especially in Britain) our impulse is to try and put a lid on emotional outbursts, seeing them as yet another example of people being ‘difficult’ (another way of saying ‘they see the world differently’).  But why not reframe this – what if you take the view that all energy is positive?  How might you engage with that energy, channel it? 

The answer, of course, is to call a consultant in to reframe it for you.  Or, alternatively, why not get someone to squirt breast milk in your eye?  If you think positively enough, it might just work.

© Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved.