How Framing and Re-Framing Can Unlock Understanding & Build Trust

Kaleidoscope – Photo Source Unsplash by Christian-liebel-zGGfj7PpyCQ

You care about work relationships. You understand how important they are to your happiness at work, to your performance, and to your influence. Our objective in writing this article is not to persuade you to adopt specific types of behavior, but is, instead, to provide information about Frames known to help people to understand others as well as to connect increasingly meaningfully with others.

What Are Frames and How Can They Be Useful?

Frames are filters, perspectives or points of view each of us has that influence our interpretation of events as well as of the behavior, the words, the decisions, and the actions of others.

We are creating frames for what we see, hear and experience all day long, and those Frames both inform and limit the way we think. In most cases, we [aren’t aware of] the frames–we just assume we are looking at the world with the proper set of lenses.” — Tina Seelig, author of ‘ingenius’

We don’t generally realize we’re developing Frames or anticipate the role our Frames play as we observe people’s behavior and our brains connect, in the flash of a moment, what happens as we move through each day having stored memories, with lessons we’ve learned through past work and life experience. We interpret what’s happening based on those flashed connections and we make interpretations and judgments as well as decide how we’ll respond or react.

You can use Framing and Re-Framing to increase your understanding of people and, subsequently, to choose your own actions, words and responses–to improve work relationships–or even, to transform them. This is a skillset that can strengthen other skills, such as problem solving, innovation, creativity, and empathy. It’s a staple in communication training for leaders as well as for anyone seeking meaningful connections with other people.

In researching organizational behavior, a set of 4 Frames came to light. These 4 Frames are the subject of today’s post.

When I learn about any set of frames that is useful, I like to share it. This is one of those times. So, let us begin.

Take a Moment

Before you read on, complete the quiz below. (Note, when you use the link, you’ll leave this webpage.)

Quiz – LINK: Please complete it, score it, and set it beside you, then read on.

Frames Both Guide And Restrict Our Thinking

Our Frames are narrow, based on our own experience and, therefore, they are incomplete. For our interpretations and judgments to be accurate we need to look at what’s happening through different perspectives. Our thinking needs to be flexible enough to take into consideration the Frames that others have developed due to their work and life experience, which are usually different from our own.

This means we need to be always aware that other Frames exist. We need to be able to set our own Frames aside temporarily so that we can look at behavior and situations from other perspectives, to consider the concerns and priorities inherent in other points of view, before we determine how we’ll proceed. This is the concept of Re-framing, looking at things from the point of view of other Frames.


Have you ever discovered that something you said or did seemed to be misinterpreted, causing you to be mis-judged or misunderstood by someone else? If so, you have probably realized, at least on a subconscious level, that there are other perspectives that cause others to see things differently than you do. And, often-times, this impacts work relationships.

Or, perhaps you noticed a colleague’s interpretation of a management decision was so different from your own that it was difficult to comprehend?

We sometimes dismiss such occurrences quickly, thinking, “he/she just didn’t get me,” — or, “What?” — but, when this disconnect occurs, it can result in long term judgments and changes in relationships. These judgments and changes in relationships may be to your benefit, or they may have adverse effects. And, people aren’t always conscious that this is happening; they may not see it.

By Re-framing, we can better anticipate and understand the reactions and behavior of others. This enables us to plan actions and communication to make it easier for people with different frames or points of view to accurately interpret and understand the messages you intend.

Four Frames

Often-times, despite the fact that our life experiences can be so different from person to person, our thinking falls into a theme, shared widely, rather than relating only to one or a few people. The set of Frames of focus in today’s article is one such theme.

In fact, most people do not only operate from one Frame, but we we have more than one perspective based on experiences. This set of four Frames, which has been well established in the context of organizational behavior, demonstrates 4 typical perspectives of people throughout an organization. I believe this set of Frames is also highly relevant in other aspects of life.

We may adopt 2, 3 or even all four of these Frames, but, typically, one of them tends to prevail in comparison with our use of the other Frames.

This is key to understanding your Quiz results. No one Frame is better than another or most accurate overall. Each represents a thought process that has been found to be relevant to understanding the way our minds work. Following is an overview of each of the Frames.

The Structural Frame * The Human Resource Frame * The Political Frame *The Symbolic Frame

If you look at your Quiz scores, you’ll likely find evidence of all four frames. There’s probably one that stands out with a higher score, that represents a more powerful presence as a filter or perspective that shapes your thinking. Or, perhaps your scores are balanced across all four frames. We are, each of us, different in our own ways.

It’s also important to note that, despite the associations we may automatically make with each Frame name, they aren’t related in any way to a profession, department, industry, or job. The names merely hints about the description of each point of view.

Kaleidoscope – Photo by Miscellaneous Background on

The Structural Frame

Here, focus and priority is rooted in being organized and logical. This frame values and expects work to be approached with the following priorities and skills being first and foremost in importance.

  • Rules
  • Policies
  • Procedures
  • Logic and rationale
  • Data
  • Facts
  • Past precedents
  • Laws
  • Regulations
  • Formal roles, job descriptions and responsibilities
  • The chain of command and organization charts

This Frame holds less importance, if any, on people’s feelings, whether it be their own or others’. It assumes this is how companies and people at work operate; it’s how competent managers and business leaders work.

Kaleidoscope Photo by Pixabay on

The Human Resource Frame

The Human Resource Frame places high importance on people. Top priorities include the following:

  • People’s:
    • Growth
    • Feelings
    • Comfort
    • Well-being
    • Needs
  • Beliefs in this Frame:
    • People have high learning potential
    • People find change difficult
    • Organizations function best when people feel good about what they are doing

This Frame holds that people are most important and that this is how competent managers and business leaders make decisions and choose their actions. People need to come first.

Kaleidoscope Image Source: Unsplash by Shubham-dhage-sTjJYqHI1Ds

The Political Frame

This Frame is based on the belief that resources are scarce and that competition and conflict are part of work. Focus is on the following:

  • Expecting conflict due to different needs, expectations and objectives of people
  • Operating through bargaining, negotiation, coercion and compromise
  • Forming alliances and competing for power

In the Political Frame it is expected that competent leaders and managers have strong political skills. “Man is by nature a political animal.” –Aristotle

Kaleidoscope Image Source: Pinterest

The Symbolic Frame

The Symbolic Frame is about the meaning of actions, decisions and words. Priorities in finding and providing meaning include the following:

  • Rituals
  • Traditions
  • Stories
  • History
  • Inspiration

It is assumed organization culture establishes what people do and how they do it. Walking the talk, leading by example, actions speaking louder than words are all descriptive of what is expected of competent leaders and managers.

Putting These Frames To Work

Do you like working with scenarios? For those of you who would like to apply the 4 Frames to actual situations, I’m providing some below!

Scenario 1

An organization issued a new smoking and tobacco use policy. The communication to employees by managers in face to face meetings explained that due to their commitment to wellness, the company was, in 90 days, changing to a non-smoking facility. The new policy indicated no use of tobacco would be permitted on company property, indoors or outside. The disciplinary process, including the possibility of termination of employment, would be applied in the event of violation of this policy. Managers also indicated that incentives and tobacco cessation support tools would be introduced, starting within the coming week, for all employees.

Can you identify the dominant Frame for each reaction to the policy change announcement?

a. It makes sense. Other companies have already banned smoking. We’re running out of office space and smoking break-rooms could be converted to offices and conference rooms. If they remove the outdoor smoking areas they could add some parking. It’s a better use of square footage.

b. They obviously don’t care about what we want. Nobody asked us how we feel about this. They used to ask for our opinions before making changes that affect us. Is this the way it’s going to be from now on?

c. So many people I know here smoke! Not everyone can afford patches or nicotine gum. Doesn’t the company care about them? Most of them have worked here for many years and they’ve always smoked. I have friends who’ve tried to quit but they couldn’t! Is the company going to fire them?

d. We need to set up employee committees and have discussion groups to let management know how we feel about losing our choice in smoking. I will contact the union tomorrow and see what they will do. Let’s get a petition started to show them how many people are against this new policy.

When people take actions based on their dominant Frame, others who are using any of the other 3 Frames often object, sometimes silently, due to a negative interpretation of motivation, intentions, and priorities. Can you think of examples?

Scenario 2

Observing there is no designated parking for customers, visitors, or handicapped drivers, a new Facilities Manager took some time to determine how to better handle these parking needs. She notices that both sides of the building are beautifully landscaped and include cobblestone walkways encircling the building. The walkways on the sides of the building lead to picnic tables and side entrances, an attractive feature at the site.

The Manager decides to reserve 30% of the parking in front of the building, near the main entrance, for customers, visitors and handicapped, and to expand parking behind the building, which has only an entrance for shipping and receiving vehicles, for employee use. Walkways will be installed for employees to safely access the existing side entrances. This will mean many employees will have a longer walk to enter the building, but will preserve the expensive landscaping, picnic areas and walkways on the sides of the building.

  • What would be a likely explanation of this change, that might be provided using a dominant Structural Frame?
  • What might be the interpretation of this action, by people operating under each of the 4 Frames?
  • What might be alternative decisions and communications be, by a manager who Re-framed the decision before communicating?

Summary: At this point, you may be seeing how our Frames define the way we see things as they happen around us. Others’ words and actions may be based on very different reasons than our own dominant Frames would have us deduce. Similarly, our own words and actions can be interpreted differently than we intend. As a result, trust can be damaged and relationships can be changed or broken.

Framing and Re-framing can open our eyes to differences that exist between people at work simply due to our different work and life experiences. We believe people can use this understanding and the skillset of Framing and Re-framing, to consider others’ points of view when taking action, making decisions, and communicating–to make a positive difference for ourselves, others and our work.

A Flash Back to a Parable

Following is an historic parable that, incredibly, demonstrates the value of Framing and Re-Framing, and the possible, unintended consequences without it.

“Six Blind Men And The Elephant”

Once upon a time, a parable was created that became well known across the world. “Six Blind Men And The Elephant” describes how people interpret events and encounters very differently due to mindsets we develop through our individual life experience – mindsets that act as filters, coloring our perceptions of those events and encounters.

These fundamental differences between people can lead to disagreement, conflict and confusion. Frames impact the content of the messages we send other people; frames shape the way our messaging is interpreted; and frames influence the conclusions and judgments people make about us and our message. The impact can be very powerful, positive or negative.

“6 Blind Men And The Elephant” – Video

Video Source:

“Six Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887):

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he, “‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

What’s Next?

Re-Framing takes effort. To strengthen this skillset you can practice physically changing your perspective, or by identifying different points of view and analyzing them to understand and looking through them, as you might do with a kaleidoscope. You can also learn more by asking questions to explore others’ ways of thinking.

Did you see yourself accurately reflected in the Quiz? Did you find a take-away or two from this article? Is there something we might change or add, to make this more interesting, valuable and useful?

Reading and Video Sources

Video – Six Blind Men and The Elephant, source YouTube, LINK: Video Source:

“Ingenius A Crash Course on Creativity,” by Tina Seelig, 2012, Published by Harper Collins

“Six Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) LINK:

“Reframing Organizations, Artistry, Choice, and Leadership,” by Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, copyright 1991, Published by Jossey-Bass

Framing Quiz by Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal – LINK: http://www.leeb

Image source: Pinterest

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