A ‘frame’ in NLP is used to refer to a way of looking at things – roughly equivalent to ‘frame of reference’ in everyday English. A particular frame determines what we focus our attention on (the things that are ‘inside’ the frame) and what we ignore (everything else that is ‘outside’ the frame) for a long as we use it.
Another way of looking at frames in NLP is as a lens, that magnifies certain information that we are interested in, and filters out others.
There are a number of generally recognised frames in NLP that have been adopted because they are useful in getting results in particular contexts. The ANLP’s suggested curriculum for NLP Practitioner courses, for example, includes the following:
- the outcome frame (focusing on a goal and evaluating events in terms of their usefulness in reaching the goal)
- The backtrack frame (summarising the main points of agreement in a meeting to give an opportunity to ‘backtrack’ to the last point of agreement before a disagreement broke out, using the tonality and key words of the other person to strengthen rapport)
- The relevancy frame (another useful frame in meetings, used to question how a digression is relevant to achieving an agreed outcome)
- the as if frame (acting ‘as if’ something were different to explore what that would be like, or acting ‘as if’ you were a role model who is more skilled or resourceful in handling a challenging situation)
- the ecology frame (evaluating a goal or action in terms of its effect on wider systems such as the other parts of your life, your family, your health, your community etc)
- the agreement frame (the ability to present a different point of view while acknowledging that of the listener, and so make it easier for them to acknowledge yours)
These aren’t the only possible frames, just some of those which have been found to be most useful and widely applicable.
I would like to propose that we include a new frame in the ‘standard’ set, and that it will justify its place in the bestiary because it adds useful benefits over and above those offered by the existing commonly recognised frames.
What is this new (to NLP anyway) and wondrous frame? Let’s call it the “Appreciative Frame” – looking for and appreciating peak experiences, what is already working and the resources we already have. Essentially, the Appreciative Frame finds the best in our past and current experience.
Why is the Appreciative Frame useful?
In recent years I have been using a lot of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in my work with organisations and companies. AI is a strengths-based change process which focuses on finding and building on what is already working, rather than looking for problems and trying to fix them. Its assumptions about human beings and what makes for effective change are highly compatible with NLP, though usually expressed in different wording.
The heart of the Appreciative Inquiry process is the ‘Appreciative Interview’, in which people pair up to interview each other about their best experiences – either in relation to a particular change topic, or just generally about their best experiences working for that organisation or in their profession. There is something quite magical about the way that people open up to each other and the atmosphere in the room shifts during these interviews (usually lasting just 15 minutes long each way).
I think there are at least three ways in which focusing on and appreciating what is already working can help people and organisations to move forward, solve problems, and access more of their resources.
1. Appreciating what we already have changes our emotional state.
Aside from the fact that feeling good is desirable because it feels good, most people in NLP would agree that in positive states we have more access to our inner resources, and therefore can achieve more. Research from the field of positive psychology now backs this up – Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden and Build’ theory broadly states that positive emotional states give us lasting improvements in our cognitive flexibility, giving us more choices and improving our strategic thinking, creativity, ability to recover from setbacks, and even our health.
Focusing on what is going well in our lives, what we are proud of, and what we have achieved, will tend to make us feel better, since our emotions are largely a response to our internal representations of the world. Conversely, focusing on problems, even with the intention of fixing them, can make us feel anxious or irritated, and therefore less able to fix them, particularly if we view them in an ‘associated’ way.
In a study by positive psychology guru Martin Seligman, participants were asked to write down three good things that went well, and their causes, each day for a week. They showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depressive symptoms.
Appreciating the best of what is improves our emotional state, and hence our ability to make things better.
2. In focusing on problems, or even on desired outcomes, we might overlook the resources we already have.
Traditional problem-solving focuses, as you would expect, on problems. Even NLP and solution-focused approaches often jump straight into desired outcomes. In each case, existing resources – our strengths, and strategies that have worked in the past or in other contexts – may be overlooked. In fact, these existing resources provide the best platform for building desired solutions.
A study by Christoph Flückiger and Martin Grosse Holtforth found that getting therapists to focus on a client’s strengths for just ten minutes before the first five sessions of psychotherapy improved relationships with the client, and led to greater improvements by session 20.
Our expectations tend to become self-fulfilling prophesies (as in the ‘Pygmalion Effect‘ identified by Rosenthal and Jacobson). When we focus on what’s working, we naturally tend to expect more of the same.
The phenomenon of ‘priming’ – the modification of a person’s behaviour that happens due to the unconscious associations that an event, an object, or even a word evokes for them – is well known in psychology, and new examples are emerging from research all the time.
When we view our present reality through an appreciative frame, we are priming ourselves for further successes.
3. Rediscovering present strengths and past achievements makes it easier to construct compelling and believable outcomes.
I can’t be the only person this has happened to: in one of the first NLP seminars I ever attended, when asked where I wanted to be in five years time, I went blank and found it very hard to know. I probably made something up so as not to disappoint my exercise partner, but whatever goal I took into the ‘well-formed outcome’ process never actually happened, because I didn’t identify with it.
If someone is feeling not that resourceful or beset by present problems, the theory of state-dependent memory, learning and behaviour suggests that it won’t be easy for them to develop a compelling and credible image of a meaningful goal. If they don’t reference the best of their existing experience, they may not be sure of what they want.
The ‘blank canvas’ they are presented with in the goal-setting process can paralyse rather than liberate. Any images they do come up with are likely to be pallid and unconvincing if they are not rooted in solid reference experiences.
Conversely, if we first inquire into the best of our experiences – the memories that we feel proud of, that tell us that we are good at certain things and have certain valued qualities – it becomes easy to think of what we want. Why? Because we already have some experiences where those desired things have happened, at least in part. We can build on the best of the past to know what we want in the future.
Additionally, our images of achieving more in the future are going to be more vivid, compelling and believable because they are based in solid reference experiences. We therefore approach the future with more confidence.
For more about how our internal representation of reference experiences forms our self-concept in relation to particular qualities, I recommend Steve Andreas’ excellent ‘Transforming Your Self: Becoming Who You Want To Be‘ – a must for coaches and therapists.
Questions to evoke the Appreciative Frame
- What’s already working?
- What’s been your best experience in relation to (desired result)?
- Where is the solution already happening, if only in part?
- What strengths/qualities/skills/resources/ do you have that will help?
- What are you grateful for?
- What enabled these good experiences to happen?
You could also use scaling questions from Solution Focus – the subject of another article.
Whether in therapy, coaching, or changework with a team or organisation, exploring the best of the current situation and past achievements via an ‘Appreciative Frame’ will help to open up more choices and possiblities, and reconnect with forgotten resources.
Image by kirsche222 at sxc.hu