For several days after breakfast with friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about something one of them did during the conversation. We were discussing a controversial topic, and my friend said, “My thinking is like yours.” As the conversation continued, it became apparent that his opinions were close to mine in some ways, but actually quite different from mine in others. I wouldn’t say that his thinking was “like mine”, but the more we talked, the more I could see his point of view.
What happened in that moment is called cognitive reframing. Reframing happens when you create a new context, or a new “frame” for a discussion. It’s one of the most powerful and effective ways of communicating. Cognitive reframing or restructuring is also a powerful therapeutic tool we can use to discover, challenge, and modify or replace our negative or irrational thoughts, or schemas.
We all have schemas. Schemas are simply thought patterns and assumptions about how things work or the way things are. Without schemas, we would have to approach every problem or situation as a brand new one, without any of our previous experiences, problem solving techniques, or lessons learned to draw from. Schemas are essential to our ability to function efficiently, but they are not always accurate.
If my perspective about an issue, situation, or person is skewed, I will respond in alignment with my perception and miss the reality that is right in front of me. During breakfast, the subject we were discussing was controversial and generates a lot of emotion in people. What happened when my friend said, “My thinking is like yours,” was a shift in my cognitive frame from a position of defensiveness and looking for points of disagreement to a position of curiosity and looking for ways we agreed.
Cognitive reframing can be as simple as setting the stage verbally for a different approach by identifying potential realities that we may miss due to our schemas—like my friend did. Saying out loud that we have more we agree on than we disagree about sets the frame for us to find those points of agreement.
This is especially useful in difficult conversations. Opening a conversation where you need to deliver critical feedback with, “In this situation, I am not satisfied with your progress,” creates a frame that rules out absolutes. We often have schemas that switch to absolutes like: “My supervisor is never happy with me,” or, “I’m sure this person is on the complete opposite side of the issue.”
More complex situations and thoughts may require a more systematic approach. We can start (individually or as a team or group) by asking these questions:
- Is this thought realistic?
- Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
- What is the evidence for this thought?
- Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
- Am I viewing the situation as black and white when it’s really more complicated?
- Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
- By exploring what we think about people and situations, we can be open to discovering when our schemas are not accurate, and then we have the opportunity to change them.
Our conversation over breakfast changed my opinion. That might not have happened if my friend had simply argued with me or just stated his thoughts in opposition to mine. Instead, he helped me by reframing the conversation into an exploration of ways we were together, and, in doing so, made the rest of what he shared more interesting to me.
Cognitive reframing can help us have more productive conversations, open our minds to better solutions and unseen opportunities, and help keep us from being judgmental and close-minded. People in communities that care about every person and seek to respect everyone equally will use reframing as a tool to create better dialogue and better outcomes. “My thinking is like yours,” is a great frame of mind for a healthy conversation, and it is the Bison Way.