In the psychology of perception, when you look at something you will generally be focusing on a part of what you can see – the ‘figure’ – and paying less attention to the everything else, which forms the backdrop or ‘ground’. The ground gives a context to the figure, but it’s the figure that you normally give your attention to.
You will be familiar with a certain kind of optical illusion, like the one known as ‘Rubin’s vase’ which changes into two facing profiles if you look at it a certain way. You make it change by shifting your attention away from the white space of the vase and onto the black background, which then becomes the ‘figure’ and turns into facing profiles in silhouette. What used to be the figure becomes the ground, and vice versa. The image ‘flips’ into something different.
There is a way of doing this with words too. An example will probably help:
In the graphic novel ‘Watchmen‘ by Alan Moore – you may have seen the movie of it – the masked vigilante known as Rorschach has been betrayed and put in prison. So he’s banged up in there with hundreds of criminals who hate him, many of them because it’s him that put them in there.
And in the face of the threats and attacks from these hardened killers, he turns to them and says “None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.”
Here’s the scene from the movie (warning: contains some really nasty violence, so don’t watch if you’re easily disturbed): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAHwnaYrk0k
Just to break that down: if he’s locked up with them, the implication is that he (the ‘figure’ in this case) should be afraid because he’s locked up with them (the ‘ground’). When he switches referential index on that statement, the meaning turns into “You (the ‘figure’ now) should be afraid because you’re locked up with me”.
The structure has some similarities to the ‘chiasm’ outlined by Paul Watzlawick in the excellent Language of Change, but that relies on crossing over the word order. An example he gives is the National Rifle Association’s slogan ‘If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.’ That to me looks similar to the ‘Apply to Self’ pattern in the Sleight of Mouth model.
Why not give the figure-ground reframe a try with any statement that’s problematic for you?
Image: ‘Rubin’s Vase’ from Wikipedia