A middle-aged man stands with his back to the crowded room, seemingly unaware of the social setting surrounding him. His figure, distorted by the shadow the lamp in the corner casts over his features, looks awkward and unsettlingly still.
The hostess watches from across the room as the man stares out the window with what she assumes is a mystified look in his eyes. He must be deep in important thought, she muses, to be able to tune out the general chatter and amiable socializing that has occupied all her other guests. Then she turns her attention back to fixing the table of food in front of her.
“Who invited him?” asks one of the ladies in the centre of the room. There’s a momentary hushed silence as the few ladies grouped around her turn to stare disapprovingly at the figure in the corner.
“He must not know anyone here, or he thinks he’s too good to socialize with the rest of us,” mumbles one of the women in response. “Why else would he be standing alone?”
“Someone’s late and he’s worried,” gathers the young man seated next to his wife, just a few feet away from the window. He can see the gentleman’s eyes glance impatiently down at his phone before returning to stare out the window at each passing car. He watches as the expression of hope on the man’s face turns to concern as each vehicle that approaches fails to turn into the driveway.
For some reason, the young man can’t divert his gaze from the gentleman’s shadow-covered face, and he continues to watch him in sympathetic silence. The weather outside is miserable.
Perspective is a powerful force
Perspective allows the same event or situation to be perceived in a multitude of ways. The middle-aged man, depending on the viewpoint, could be perceived as a philosopher deep in thought, an upper-class gentleman who believes himself too dignified to socialize with the individuals around him, or a concerned husband waiting for his wife to arrive safely.
At this party, nothing about the man himself ever changed, but the perspective from which he was observed impacted the general opinion. Three people were able to look at the same man and feel respect, hostility or empathy, based solely on the frame of reference they used to perceive him.
An individual’s perspective on a situation is created by virtue of a personalized and unique set of experiences. Where and how they’re raised, the social setting and beliefs they’re subjected to and many other factors contribute to each person’s outlook on life.
The power of reframing can’t be overstated
The truth behind the statement, “Things aren’t what they are, they’re what we think they are” becomes obvious when we accept the notion that adopting a different perspective—or reframing—gives us the opportunity to change how we feel about anything. This notion can be better understood if we consider a cup of coffee.
If I were to attempt to explain what coffee was to an individual who’d never heard of it, they’d walk away from our conversation believing that coffee was some sort of beverage that was made by steeping ground beans in a pot of water until it turned black. However, if my sister (who’s a coffee addict!) were to explain what coffee was, that same individual would walk away believing that coffee was a form of liquid energy. They’d believe that, through a meticulous process of grinding and steeping, individuals could create a bitter, yet smooth-tasting elixir for North American life.
A cup of coffee isn’t just a cup of coffee, it’s what we expect coffee to be, based on our experience with it.
How an individual chooses to frame something in their mind, either consciously or subconsciously, really matters. In fact, I strongly agree with what Rory Sutherland said in his Ted Talk [paraphrased]: “The circumstances of our lives matter much less to our happiness than the way we choose to see them.”
Understanding ourselves and others
Reframing isn’t as simple as choosing to look at the glass as half-full. It’s about recognizing that we have control over how much we’re influenced by external factors and choosing to relabel or re-identify a particular circumstance.
We can choose to do this either for our own personal gain or to help others view something in a different light. By considering other perspectives, individuals can increase their understanding of one another and positively impact how they approach the many circumstances they find themselves in.
Had the young man at the party not been reliving the moment his wife had her car accident, he may have noticed that the look on the middle-aged gentleman’s face wasn’t one of concern but discomfort.
Had the lady in the centre of the room not felt undervalued and alone, she may have noticed how the figure seemed to flinch if anyone got too close.
Had the hostess not wished she’d had more experiences that enticed her to seek time alone to think, she may have recalled that the man she invited, as a favour to a friend, had a fear of social settings and that a friendly introduction could go a long way.
The way we approach our efforts to reframe our perspective differs for each person. Keep in mind that the goal of reframing isn’t necessarily to make yourself happier or force a more optimistic view. Rather, it’s to realize that by altering our frame of reference, we’re able to gain a more truthful understanding of our circumstances.
This understanding will allow us to react to any situation with our “best self.”