Introducing the ‘Figure-Ground’ reframe (not for the faint-hearted)

Here’s a type of reframe that I’ve not seen mentioned in any NLP writings so far, but is worth knowing about. We could see it as a special kind of context reframe.

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

© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Resli Costabell

    The Don Draper character in "Mad Men" did a spectacular figure-ground reframe. A character named Peter tried to blackmail him. Don pointed out that if Peter thought the information he (Peter) held was so powerful that it would cause Don to give up X, then surely Peter should consider what Don would be willing to do to Peter to keep the information quiet. (I'm not doing the episode justice – this is just from memory.)

    When I worked in drug rehab, I was challenging a client. He rolled a ciggie, saying, "Look what you made me do – you made me have a cigarette". I replied, "If I could control whether you smoked or not, you wouldn't smoke that cigarette and you'd never smoke again." Was that a Figure-Ground reversal, or something else?

    And can you offer F-GR examples that would 99% of the time seem supportive and carry no hint of aggression?

  2. Andy Smith

    I think your ciggie example is more of a consequence pattern from Sleight of Mouth.

    For a non-violent example of a figure-ground reframe, how about JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

    To generate a figure-ground reframe, just switch the subject and object of a statement (as Rorschach and JFK did). Sometimes it won't be suitable, in which case don't say it. Still working on how to spot a suitable case for reframing, but that's the quick and dirty way.

  3. Marty

    This reminds me of something I wrote a couple of months back. Consider the phrase "you did that on purpose" generally used in a negative context, yet the meaning can be changed. The state is the same as saying "You did that WITH A purpose". It has a motivating and positive context, doesn't it. Good article. I'm going to look at the film clip now.

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