Framing And Some Commonly Used Frames In NLP

Marcel Duchamp 'Fountain'
Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ – a work of art *because* it’s in an art gallery

All meaning is context dependent. When you put a picture in a frame in an art gallery, it changes the way people look at it. It becomes “a work of art”. Marcel Duchamp caused a revolution in the art world in 1917 with his work ‘Fountain’, which was just an ordinary porcelain urinal – but turned into a work of art by being placed in a display case in an art gallery. A survey of 500 art experts in 2004 named it the most influential work of art of all time.

Incidentally, one of my heroes, Brian Eno, has written in his excellent book A Year With Swollen Appendices about how he managed to return the urinal to its original use while the gallery attendant’s back was turned, with the aid of some plastic tubing concealed about his person. I’ve no idea if Eno has done anything with NLP, by the way, but I found quite a few parallels in his book between his way of thinking (particularly in his ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards) and NLP.

So the frame, or context, in which we view something affects the way we see it and the meaning it has for us. In this and the next few articles you will learn about the standard frames that NLP has identified, and how we can use them.

You will also be discovering at least two methods of reframing ideas or statements to get people to change their minds, by changing either the context in which they are seeing an event, or the meaning that they give to it.

Commonly Used Frames In NLP

Here are some of the ‘standard’ frames that are widely used in NLP, along with some ideas on how you could use them.

Outcome Frame

The ‘Outcome Frame’ is about evaluating events in the light of the desired outcomes or goals you have set for yourself. These outcomes should of course be ‘well-formed’ (see the glossary). The Outcome Frame gives you a firm basis for evaluating any action or anything that happens: does it help you to achieve your desired outcome, or take you further from it?

Ecology Frame

This is about the effect of an event or action on the larger systems of which we are a part: family, team, organisation, community, or the planet as a whole. Does your proposed action respect your integrity as a human being, and the integrity of others involved? If you feel incongruent about something, this is usually a sign that you need to pay attention to ecology.

‘As If’ Frame

The ‘As If’ frame is a way of exploring possibilities for creative problem solving. What would happen if some element of the situation were different?


“What would Richard Bandler do in this situation?”

“Where will we be six months from now, and how did we get here?”

“What’s the worst thing that could happen, and how would we handle it?”

The ‘As If’ frame is the basis of contingency planning, computer systems testing, and science fiction.

You can also use the ‘As If’ frame with a group to get them into the same frame of mind as if they had already achieved a desired outcome, by asking them what the outcome will look like, what they will see/hear/feel, what effects will it have, and so on. This will help them to believe in the outcome and feel more motivated to act.

Backtrack Frame

The ‘Backtrack Frame’ comes in handy in meetings, discussions and negotiations. To use it, you would recapitulate what has been said using the other person’s key words and tonalities. Doing this checks agreement and understanding of what has been said, helps to build rapport, and is useful when new people join the meeting. It is also very useful to backtrack to the last point of agreement when a meeting gets stuck, so you get a chance to start over at the point before the disagreement happened.

Relevancy Frame

This is another frame that’s useful in meetings. If a participant in a meeting speaks or acts in a way that is irrelevant to the agenda or the desired outcome, the question “how is that relevant?” can be used to bring the meeting back on track.

Contrast Frame

Here are a couple of ways you could use the ‘Contrast Frame’:

If you are aiming to build motivation or explore possibilities when considering your future course, you could contrast a desired outcome with the present situation or an alternative. This puts the outcome in more perspective and makes more choices available. Obviously which aspects of the present situation you choose to highlight, and which alternatives you contrast the desired outcome with, will affect how the outcome looks.

In selling and persuasion, you can contrast one choice with another to put your favoured choice in a better light. For example, showing a very expensive item first will make the next item feel better value – even if it is still quite highly priced. Similarly, if you are asking your team members to take some action, it will feel easier to them if it’s contrasted with something much more arduous and difficult.

Open Frame

This is used in NLP trainings. An ‘Open Frame’ on a course or in a meeting or presentation provides an opportunity to ask any questions or provide any comments about the topic or subject area under discussion. For example, the trainer might ask: ‘Is there anything whatsoever you want to ask about NLP?’

Elsewhere, I’ve also suggested that an ‘Appreciative Frame‘ is a very useful one to adopt.

You can find out more about frames and framing in the Practical NLP Podcast Episode 53 – why not subscribe so you never miss another episode?.

© 2016 – 2019, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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