One-Word Reframes (“Emotive Conjugation”)

This article is based on a handout plus activity instructions from The Trainer’s Pack of NLP Exercises – out now (and you can download 15 free NLP training activities)!

You can use one-word reframing conversationally, or turn it into an activity for training NLP, objection handling, influencing, coaching or therapy skills.

Look at these well-known quotations from Bertrand Russell:

“I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool.”
“I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.”
“I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.”

(from The Brains Trust on BBC Radio in 1948 – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotive_conjugation)

Russell was illustrating how words can have a similar denotation (meaning) but quite different positive or negative connotations (the fuller set of associations and emotions that are attached to the word). NB ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ are drawn from semiotics and are not commonly used terms in NLP, although they are useful nevertheless.

The structure Russell used – “I am x, you are y, he/she is z” – is also known as ‘emotive conjugation’ or ‘the Russell conjugation’. In each case the different terms used for “I, you and he” refer to the same behaviour or quality, but frame them differently so that we feel differently about them.

Russell was using this structure to highlight our tendency to judge other people’s behaviour more harshly than our own, but we can equally use the same structure to put a more positive spin on negative self-judgements, to reduce the perceived size of obstacles or transgressions, or to make a goal more motivating.

Try it for yourself:
To generate one-word reframes, think of the connotations as a continuum, decide which direction you want to go (e.g from ‘good’ to ‘great’, or ‘distracting’ to ‘creative’), and pick words at different points along the continuum.

Come up with some redefinitions that ‘diminish’ these qualities, actions or events which are usually regarded negatively:

e.g. Always late -> often tardy, sometimes delayed

Aggressive ->………….. , …………..

Obstinate -> ………….. , …………..

Disaster -> ………….. , …………..

Nitpicking -> ………….. , …………..

Aggressive ->………….. , …………..

And reframes that increase a desirable but weak or so-so quality or action:

e.g. Not bad -> OK, good

Pleasant -> ………….. , …………..

Interesting ->  ………….. , …………..

Acceptable -> ………….. , …………..

Clever -> ………….. , …………..

More examples of ‘emotive conjugation’ here:



And an article by Tom Dehnel with more examples of the ‘Russell Conjugation’ here:

This article builds on the idea of one-word reframing introduced in Robert Dilt’s book Sleight of Mouth: The Magic of Conversational Belief Change – recommended!

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Try before you buy – download 15 exercises for free.

© 2010 – 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Kathleen Fedouloff

    An excellent item and an excellent illustration of how important the 'story' we tell about ourselves and others is in shaping our self-constructs and view of the world.

    I believe it was also Russell who said that the reason why people put up with boring 9 to 5 jobs is because it saves them the trouble of having to decide what to do all day long. One could have fun emotively conjugating that process…

  2. Andy Smith

    Kathleen knows a thing or two about stories – she is too modest to leave a link for her entertaining and wise ongoing commentary on the 1001 Nights (a vast undertaking and a true labour of love) so I shall do it for her.

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