We are the Framers

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

To think is to frame.  To give something a name identifies it and doing so puts it within a frame.  When an infant does this, the child begins to populate his or her world—“toy, doggie, mommy, daddy, eye, toes.”  In this way we create the meanings that become the World that we live within.  As we name things, we create a vocabulary of terms.  This answers the most fundamental question, “What is X?”  After that come more complex meanings: “Why is X?”  “What is X for?”  “Where does X come from?”  “What causes X?”

Thinking creates and sets frames.  That’s why framing is the very heart of human functioning.  We frame things.  And we frame things at many levels.  It’s not enough that we call a tone of voice “harsh, stressed, strained,” we have to frame what that means.  “Criticism, insult, put-down, upset, stressed, etc.”  Nor is that enough.  We have to frame that, “Danger to my sense of self, threat to my self-esteem, conflict, etc.”  And then we frame that, “Must do X.”  “I can now expect Y.”  “This means Z.”  Frames come in groups —embedded inside of each other.

What is a “frame?”  At first it is a name.  Then it’s the mental context we put around that name.  Then it is the context of the context, and so on.  Prior to Gregory Bateson’s use of the term frame for “context” and the embedding of multiple contexts (as “logical levels” or types), we called such frames by a multitude of terms: beliefs, values, expectations, decisions, understandings, identification, meaning, paradigm, etc.  The problem with such words was that we thought they were different things— unrelated to each other. Today we know them as different frames.  In Neuro-Semantics we have identified 26 key frames in the list of meta-questions in the Meta-States model and used the metaphor of a diamond to speak about the many facets (or frames) of consciousness.

As we think and meta-think up the levels, we create a Matrix —a matrix of frames.  This conceptual tool allows us to describe the Matrix that we were born in, the Matrix that we have and continue to create for ourselves, and the Matrix that others live in.  With this meta-analysis tool, we can now deal with our Matrix and that of another holistically and systemically.  It gives us the ability to profile, model, coach, and transform our Matrix.

Previously, we treated “thought” and “emotion” as separate and as linear processes.  Now we know better.  They are neither.  “Thinking-feeling” is a systemic and non-linear process that occurs within our mind-body-emotion system.  And “thinking-feeling-and-incorporating in our body” is our framing mechanism.  This explains so much.  It explains how “saying” something can create a person’s reality.  Our neuro-semantic mechanisms take what we “say”—our words, associations, memories, imaginations, pictures, sounds, sensations, etc.—and seek to “make them real” (realize them) inside of our mind-body-emotion system.

The ancients knew this.  “Be it unto you according to what you believe.”  “As a man thinks, so is he.”  “Thinking makes it so.”  “Men are not disturbed by things, but by their interpretation of things.”  Today this ancient wisdom lies at the heart of the Cognitive-Behavioral sciences, and is the foundation for systems thinking and dynamics, artificial intelligence, cognitive linguistics, and Neuro-Semantics.

In a simpler century, we thought that merely correcting our thinking would be sufficient.  The “Positive Thinking” movement encapsulated that philosophy.  From that premise came their mantra: “Just think positively!”  Even today, many people use “Affirmations” in that way.  They think that by merely affirming a statement over and over they will change their Matrix.  But that’s linear thinking.  And it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because there are thoughts in the back of the mind.  Tell yourself, “I am rich and charming and successful and have high self-esteem” a thousand times, ten-thousand.  Yet if there’s a thought in the back of your mind that goes, “Yeah.  Right!”  Guess which thought will govern?  The second thought (the meta-state) which is in higher or meta position to the first.
What the “Positive Thinking” folks didn’t know, or didn’t take into account, is the systemic nature of “mind” which involves layers of thinking-feeling awareness.  Not accounting for the power of the meta-thoughts, they provide no processes for dealing with those higher level thoughts that set the frame of the system.

“What do you think about saying your affirmations?”
“Well, I hope it will work.  I kind of feel like I’m faking it though.”

“Don’t worry about that, just fake it till you make it!”
“Okay, if you say so.  I hope this will work.”

The Embedding of Frames

Since meaning does not exist “out there” in the world, but is a function of our thinking-feeling system, this reveals that we are the meaning-makers.  So let’s say that a young teenage boy on a baseball team takes a ball and bat home from school.  What is that?  What do we call it?  How do we frame it?

Teenage rebelliousness
Immoral behavior
Evidence of being a sociopath

Now suppose the police are called and the boy is arrested and taken to a therapist.  How will the therapist frame things?  What “problem” will he or she address in the therapy?  The therapist could use any of the former or possibly one of these:

Typically adolescence behaviors
Sign of a dysfunctional home life or parenting
Sign of drug problems
Needing attention
Trying to get dad back home

Now we can see that the question is not only how do we frame things, but how we order the framing?  Suppose we discover that the boy’s parents had just separated.  How do we juxtapose the possible three frames before us?

  • Missing Dad and wanting him back
  • Son’s Problematic behavior
  • Arrested for Stealing a bat and ball

Because we embed frames within frames, a frame at one order of understanding can be the content of another frame and then, when viewed from another perspective, can be the context.  In this we can view a frame as a part or as the whole.  This enables us to generate many possible part/whole relationships of embeddedness.

If we use a pathology or problem-focused framing, then we see the action of stealing as only one among many examples of the boy’s problems.  Embedding the frames in this way sets problems as the highest frame.  Problems, pathology, dysfunctional family, parenting, etc. now become the highest frame and what the stealing “really means.”

1.  Son’s Problematic behaviour

2. Arrested for Stealing a bat and ball

3. Missing Dad and wanting him back
If, however, we frame things from another perspective, from a boy’s love and emotional state, then the framing sees the stealing through the eyes of trying to create a solution, trying to get dad back involved in the family.  Embedding the frames in this way contextualizes things different and offers a more constructive way to respond to things.  Perhaps now the boy is “really” trying to connect with dad and giving dad a reason for being involved at home.

1.  Getting Dad home

2. Arrested for Stealing

3. Son’s Problematic behaviour

Neuro-Semantic Reality

At this point there will be some who will feel compelled to ask the insolvable question, “What’s really the truth?”  Ask it all you will.  Such philosophizing can be fascinating and wonderful, yet if there’s a part of your life that’s not working the way you want it to … that philosophizing will misdirect your attention and energies.  It sabotage you from taking effective action in the real world.  As a framer, the more important question is, “Which framing empowers you to more effectively transform your life and the lives of others?”

If you want to be an effective leader, manager, coach, therapist, or communicator, your success lies in powers of framing and your effectiveness as a framer lies in your ability to step back from yourself.  In that way you can observe your frames and your framing.  And that puts you at choice point.  It’s in this way that you can begin to become a master of your own Matrix and an effective helper with others.

How do you frame?  What’s your style of meaning-making?  How effectively can you enter into your own Matrix with a non-judgmental awareness and tweak the framing so that your mind-body-emotion system can function effectively and pleasurably?


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. developed the Matrix model after Frame Games, Meta-States and co-founded Neuro-Semantics.

1.  Illustration comes from Bradford P. Keeney (1990), Improvisational Therapy: A Practical Guide for Creative Clinical Strategies.  NY: The Guilford Press.
Hall, L. Michael. (2000).  Frame Games: Persuasion Elegance.  Clifton, CO: Neuro-Semantic Publications.
Hall, L. Michael. (2002).  The Matrix Model. Clifton, CO: Neuro-Semantic Publications.