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Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 52: Reframing


Continuing our theme of tools for change, this month we will look at one of the most difficult things to do during change, or even at any other time: that is, to persuade people. Although it seems difficult, it actually is not that hard – in fact most of us do it every day. When I ask my son to pass the marmalade, I am persuading him. The difficulty, of course, comes if he says ‘no’.  I now have to ask him again in some different way such that he changes his mind and passes the marmalade.

In change, marmalade is replaced by deeper things. We may need people to change words, actions, goals, values or beliefs. The further down the list we want them to go, the more difficult it is to persuade them.


Framing and reframing

When we infer meaning (remember this from the SIFT model last time?), we use our deep systems to filter what we see and hear. This is called ‘framing’ and the combination of needs, emotions, beliefs, values, mental models, goals and so on that affect our inference act together to form a ‘frame of reference’ or just ‘frame’.

To persuade people means changing how they perceive something, which means changing some aspect of these deep systems – either how they are used (for shallow persuasion) or what they are (for deeper persuasion).  Changing the frame of reference is called ‘reframing’.


Needs reframing

The deepest level at which you can persuade is to prod at the other person’s needs. Abraham Maslow defined these as:

·         Physiological (health)

·         Safety

·         Belonging

·         Esteem

·         Self-actualisation (achieving one’s potential)


Let’s take the marmalade example. A simple response would be to affect my son’s deep needs for safety. I could reframe thus as:

‘Pass me the marmalade or I’ll hit you!’

This is rather extreme (although raising my voice might have the same, but more subtle, implications), so I could perhaps reframe at the level of belonging needs:

‘Excuse me? Are you a member of this family?’

Or maybe esteem needs:

‘I’d appreciate it if you passed the marmalade.’


Values reframing

Values are the rules of life that we share and which tell us what is right and wrong, good and bad. The Ten Commandments are values, as is the ‘Golden Rule’ of ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Social rules also say that if a person breaks a social rule then they are likely to be made outcasts (which deeply affects their need to belong).

I could thus work with my son’s values:

 ‘Is it more important to read the paper or help your Father?’

Or maybe:

‘Are you a member of this family?’


Beliefs reframing

Beliefs are assumed truths that are at the root of all our understanding. Values, for example, are beliefs. An important area in which we have beliefs is about other people and about ourselves.


To work with beliefs, I might thus ask my son:

‘Are you the kind of person who helps others?’


‘I can’t reach the marmalade. Can you?’



Goal reframing

We have personal goals which we use to determine our actions. If we find these goals might not be met, then we are likely to try a different method.

Thus I might say to my son:

‘If you want a lift to school, I’d suggest passing the marmalade.’

Or maybe:

‘Very funny, but I’m not that easily wound up.’


Of course, I could always ask my wife to pass the marmalade, but persuading my son is so much more interesting. In practice, my son is pretty good and we don’t argue much –we also refrain from extreme negotiations (which is another way of saying the above examples were deliberately colourful).


There are many other systems of persuasion, of course, but reframing is one of the simplest and most effective. Remember next time someone is resisting a change, all you need to do is help them see it in a different light, thus changing their frame!


Next time: The Kübler-Ross cycle


Note: I am currently, as a background activity,  developing the ‘’ website, with the ambitious goal of making it the best site in the world on persuasion. At the moment it is early days and at a relatively academic level. Do feel free to browse!


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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