Every decision you make, in fact your entire life, is controlled by psychological “frames”.
WHAT IS A FRAME?
A ‘frame’ is the lens through which you see the world. You have thousands of frames. They allow you to understand the world and make it easier to survive through new situations.
Because of your life experience, you will have frames that are unique to you. These will be slightly different to everyone else in the world, though often you will find others who have similar perspectives.
You can see frames playing out in everyday scenarios. One person will say “That was a great game last night”, while a person supporting the losing side will say “I can’t believe how biased the referee was”. They both watched the same coverage of the game, yet each remembers a completely different event.
Imagine this: you see a white guy beating up a black guy. You missed the start of the fight and have just arrived halfway through. What is your frame on this situation?
You might believe the white person is committing a hate-crime. You might think the black guy tried to rob the white guy. You might see the fight as entertaining, or brutal, or confusing, or exhilarating, or just normal. It is all decided by your experiences in life related to the event.
Dependent on your frame, this situation has any number of different potential meanings. Yet the only evidence you really have is that one human is fighting physically with another human. Everything else you have added yourself.
WHY DO WE HAVE FRAMES?
Frames are like shortcuts. You can avoid the hassle of having to re-assess every new person and situation, allowing you to save time.
Imagine if you had to let go of all memories and learning, and assess everything as if for the first time. How difficult would that be? How long would it take you to get dressed, or choose your breakfast?
Having a frame like “breakfast is cereal and toast” allows you to get to work on time. A frame like “I am the boss” allows you to overcome doubt at the team meeting. Believing “I can handle anything” gives you the courage to face something new. These frames create success and progress.
But frames aren’t always helpful…
Racism is a frame that allows you to avoid assessing each individual one at a time, grouping everyone together which means you’ll overlook good people in the group you hate. Low self-confidence is a frame which makes you feel less than others, causing submissive behaviour. Thinking that “people drive more slowly on Sundays” is a frame, which aggravates you when you drive.
Frames are the contextual understanding you attach to new events. So this actually means every event, because it is categorically impossible for any event to be identical to another. There are too many variables – even scientific lab experiments have to adjust findings for this.
HOW ARE FRAMES CREATED?
Frames are mostly created by others and passed on to you. Your whole life you have been pushed and pulled by the views of others. Very few of your frames will be based on your own experience solely. You would need to be completely isolated with no previous experience for this to happen.
That means that you inherited your beliefs about the world from others. Your parents, your teen peers, internet articles like this one, TV shows, magazines, overheard conversations, misunderstood jokes… the list goes on infinitely.
This implies that you are also able to change your frames, based on new evidence or experimentation.
A client of mine had the frame “flirting is degrading to women”. When he was about six years old he overheard his mother and aunts complaining about guys being sleazy, and thought they were talking about him. This led him to form a frame that created Nice Guy behaviour when he was in the company of women he found attracted to. It also created crippling shame about feelings of sexual attraction.
When we challenged this, he realised on a purely logical level that this frame did not help him in terms of his relationship goals. So he went on a mission to flirt with women, consciously trying to implement a new frame: “Flirting with women makes them feel good about themselves”.
You can imagine his surprise when he started getting positive reactions.
IDENTIFYING UNHELPFUL FRAMES
Once you understand frames, you will start to see how they affect your life. Most importantly, you can start to identify frames that hold you back. This isn’t debate on good vs evil, or right vs wrong. Such debates are far too subjective to assist your journey.
It’s about a simple question: “Does this help me achieve my goals?”
Imagine you have a goal of meeting a wider range of people, to create more meaningful connections in your life, and possibly find your ideal partner. Have a look at these frames and ask that question:
- Racism vs all people are just people
- I cannot approach strangers vs people are craving leadership in social situations
- People hate me vs people are generally friendly
- I should try to make everyone like me vs I should have high standards with an open mind
Identifying which frames you have holding you back is tricky at first. The fear centre in your brain doesn’t want to consciously acknowledge these, because they are… well, scary.
But until you can face your own limitations you will be a slave to them. Your goals will have to be thrown on the fire and burned, because without changing your unhelpful frames you will struggle immensely to change your behaviour.
There are two ways to identify your unhelpful frames. The most simple is to ask yourself:
Look at your goals and dreams, and ask yourself honestly “Why can’t I have that/achieve that/do that?”
It doesn’t matter how rational your answers appear, they are still unhelpful frames. Even something like “I don’t have enough time” is not actually a legitimate excuse. What you’re really saying is “I’m choosing not to prioritise this over other stuff I’m doing”. Be honest with yourself; no one else needs to know so don’t hold back.
Click here for more on how to control the negative frames that hold you back.
The other method is more complex, and it’s about assessing your failed attempts or lack of progress. While trying to achieve your goals, start analysing when it goes wrong. Look beyond the mistaken behaviour, and instead try to identify the thought pattern that sabotaged the behaviour before you even begun.
One of my clients was trying to get more clients for her business. But no matter how she approached them, her success rate for conversions was lousy. So we started analysing her beliefs around ‘getting clients’. We quickly identified that she was going client-conversations with the frame “I need the money”, which made her appear needy.
We tried a new frame. She was to engage in exactly the same process as before, only this time she had to follow the frame “I’m going to bring more value into their life, even if they don’t sign up with me”. Boom! New clients started pouring in after she provided valuable service without neediness.
If you want to figure out how to change your frames to become more powerful, send your questions through to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CREATING HELPFUL FRAMES
As we’ve identified in the examples so far, creating helpful frames can massively impact your ability to succeed. Choosing the right mindset to go into a challenging situation can mean the difference between win and lose. More specifically, it will mean the difference between enjoying the event versus feeling disappointed with the outcome.
The single most effective way to figure out helpful frames is to interview people who are successful at what you want to succeed at. Ask them about the thoughts they have before they go into tough situations. Interview them about their beliefs, particularly aiming to identify the frames they have about themselves.
People who are more successful than you in your chosen field are undoubtedly following a different perspective than you. They see possibility where you see a dead-end. They feel excited about something new when you dread the unknown. They ask themselves “How can I do this?” when you’re asking “Why do I have to?”
Another way to identify helpful frames is to investigate your past successes. You’re alive today because you’ve succeeded in many different areas of life.
Pick a success from your past that was difficult but enjoyable. Ask yourself “What were my frames during that process?” and figure out what made that success different from the failures in your life. Try attempting something you’ve failed in, but this time implement the frames you’ve identified which worked for you in the past.
Another of my clients kept giving up on meeting new people (before he started coaching with me), because he wasn’t making progress. He had the frame “This is impossible, I wasn’t born with the right skills”.
We had a look at the process he went through to learn how to drive a car, something he knew he now did well. The main frame he had to help him was “Everyone else can drive”. Because he saw others doing it, he believed it could be done by anyone, so he kept trying despite all the setbacks that come from learning to drive.
We then applied this frame to meeting new people. I had him witness me approaching new people, and watching videos of it being done successfully. He decided to take on the new frame “I will get good at this as long as I keep practicing”.
Two months later he could boldly approach anyone at any time, with only small traces of nervousness.
The leader in any situation is basically decided by who has the most powerful frame.
Power is intangible. You cannot hold it in your hand, though many people think otherwise. People believe power is in money, physical strength, allies, wisdom, assertiveness or fear. It is in fact nothing more than an agreement between people:
Power is not taken, it is given.
If someone in your life is ‘powerful’, that means you have decided that they are powerful. You have chosen to give them the status of leadership. They cannot force that upon you; you have to give it to them.
A slave only has masters if he recognises the people holding his chains as “my masters”. He could change this frame, and choose to disobey (and face consequences) if he wanted. The whip does not give them power – he gives it to them. This is how a few can rule over many.
In a group situation, particular a new or unfamiliar situation, frames will do battle until a winner is decided. This is subtle and almost impossible to see, unless you’re looking for it. Once you start asking yourself “What’s his frame?” and “What’s her frame?” it becomes really obvious. Power and leadership are decided during this battle.
This is where you can take advantage of the frames others were raised with, and establish yourself as a leader. Here are some frames that people commonly have, which hold them back from taking the leadership roles:
- You need a title to lead
- Leaders are natural / leadership cannot be learned
- I have to wait to be told that I’m the leader
- A leader has to prove themselves to others
I once chastised a room of people who all significantly outranked me. I’ve taken over leadership of teams as a coal-face worker when our manager was weak. One of my clients completely changed the way his company does business despite not being asked to contribute. Another has two major tech companies fighting over him, despite more qualified candidates being available.
Leadership is all about frames. If you can maintain a strong frame in the face of competing frames, and remain unaffected, you will take the pole position almost every time. Simply put, assume you are the leader and act accordingly.
This is not about being dominant, posturing, proving yourself, or manipulating. It’s all about being solid. When you are unmoved in your frame, to the point where you believe in yourself so strongly that you don’t even bother to defend yourself, you will be seen by all as a leader.
A leader walks left when everyone else wants to walk right. And she keeps walking left even if the rest don’t follow her. Because she knows that left is the only way to walk. She pities those who want to walk right, and tries to support to them, but she doesn’t need them either. She fears no consequences because left is the only way to go. There is no other choice.
That’s what a strong frame looks like.
Here are some effective leadership frames you can try to hold strong to in your next social/work interaction:
- Sharing my ideas makes the world a better place
- I am here to serve the world by being strong on my values
- My job is to enable the best performance from everyone else
- Anyone who confronts me just needs someone to care for them, it’s nothing personal
- I will be a role-model by being vulnerable and unaffected
- We are all just primates, no one is better than anyone else, there is no such thing as status
- I will do what’s right, regardless of the consequences
- Being playful is a social magnet
And lastly, my all-time favourite question to ask myself when I want to strengthen my frame:
“What would a confident person do?”