Reframing

My early approach to this work located the sense of personal development through marital problems, as being centrally concerned with achieving secure attachments and with achieving an effective and secure personal identity. It seemed that these emotional issues were at the heart of people’s difficulties, expressed in a range of ways. It is perhaps a confusing way of articulating the issues when the actual lived experience with which we were faced was often rather more immediate and practical. Financial insecurity, domestic violence, drunkenness, depression etc were how people’s unhappiness or disturbance was often expressed.

This illustrates how the idea of ‘reframing problems’ began to become a familiar part of my understanding. A friend of mine once recalled a definition of professionalism as ‘the reframing of problems so that they become amenable to solution’. Once an issue is understood as, say ‘bad behaviour’, it is easy to find that the solution applied tends to be punishment. If that bad behaviour can be accurately described in a different way, then new options in responding to it become possible. Social enquiry reports to courts persistently struggled with this idea, and had to contend with understandable scepticism from many magistrates when the reframing turned ‘bad behaviour’ into ‘product of disturbed upbringing’!

The difficulty of course is that the ‘truth’ is many sided. Some people had difficulty in understanding that one framing of a problem was not a ‘correction’ of another – both were ‘true’ alongside other framings of the problem. There is no doubt that how a problem is framed is not an objective process – that I tended to understand marital disharmony as a struggle with identity and attachment said as much about me as about those with whom I worked, but this does not mean my way of understanding the issues was wrong or ‘prejudiced’. As ever, the central question was less whether I was right and more whether this way of understanding a problem helped towards a solution or towards some positive change at least.

In practice, we worked with several ways of framing problems at the same time. It was no good trying to resolve difficulties say with an alcoholic marriage partner simply by unfolding some of the drivers behind the drinking behaviour. This was only possible if the behaviour was managed appropriately as well – for example, arriving drunk at a session was simply not acceptable and appointments could not proceed under those circumstances. In cases of domestic violence, the safety of the parties involved was paramount. My early supervisors emphasised the importance of setting clear boundaries so that behaviour was appropriately managed before more reflective exploratory discussion was much use. This meant clarity about appointment times, their length, the role of the worker in the discussion, establishing a ‘business focus’ to the work (rather than a social, personal exchange) etc.

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