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The Power of “Reframing”

© 2022 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, July/August issue, 2022

After surviving four Nazi concentration camps in WWII, an Austrian psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl wrote a book about what the experience had taught him. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, focused on two main points: first, the power of knowing why your work or life matters; and second, that we can get through just about anything if we can reframe our circumstances around something meaningful.


In Frankl’s case, he attributed his survival to his ability to mentally reframe his circumstances from being a helpless victim to being a protagonist with an intensely meaningful task and challenge: a need to survive in order to be there for his wife and to continue work he thought was important to the world. Granted, that’s an extreme example. But the point is, reframing our circumstances and challenges is an incredibly powerful tool in coping successfully with what our lives and work environments throw at us.


At its simplest, reframing means consciously shifting our perspective in a way that allows us to see a situation in a new light, or change our understanding or feelings about it. In some cases, reframing can be as simple as realizing that a difficult interaction we had with a co-worker might not have been about us at all; it might have been entirely due to issues the other person was struggling with. Reframing can also mean recognizing that we’re making choices in how we work, parent, or spend our time because of some greater goal or value we hold, instead of feeling trapped by our burdens and obligations. It can even mean searching for things we find meaningful about our jobs, so we’re less resentful, and more at peace, with the challenges they pose.


Seeing a situation from a different perspective can help us feel better about our place in it, or help us stay focused on what’s most important to us. But reframing a situation can also impact the strategies we choose for coping with it, which can make us much more effective.


Take, for example, the challenge of working as a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry like aviation. It’s easy to feel as if it’s a constant fight for respect, inclusion and voice—because on one level, and from one perspective, it is. And to be clear: that perspective is absolutely valid. But that framing isn’t always helpful, because if we view the challenge as a fight, we’re likely to exude defensive energy. And that can end up being isolating, as well as making us less resilient and flexible in our reactions. If, on the other hand, we can reframe our situation as a cross-cultural challenge, akin to what we’d face if we got a job in Africa, it can defuse some of that defensiveness and lead us to more effective approaches.


I use Africa as an example because in 2007, I had the privilege of flying relief supplies with three women pilots stationed in various countries across Africa. The women were young—in their late 20s and early 30s. And yet, all of them were incredibly effective and successful in their jobs, despite the fact that they had to cope with not only an almost entirely male workforce, but also local cultures dominated by patriarchal customs and power structures, run exclusively by male tribal leaders and warlords. What really struck me was how comfortable all the women seemed with themselves, even when screening male passengers for guns. Self-assurance without defensiveness. And how effective that approach was in disarming male resistance.


I asked the women how they’d managed to get men to respect their authority in such challenging circumstances, and they all said the same thing: cultural awareness and respect. “The first, last, and most important thing I’ve learned here is that culture is everything,” one of them explained. “If you didn’t grow up in their culture, you’ll never get all of it, but you have to show that you’re making a serious effort to understand and respect it, before asking anyone to respect you. Then you have to figure out how to be yourself, while finding every way you can to connect across that divide.”


Granted, if we take a job as one of only a few expats in a foreign country, we expect to face cross-cultural challenges. But we can benefit greatly from viewing any work environment with that framework—especially if we’re not part of the dominant gender/racial/ethnic/identity cultural group in that space.  


Embracing a cross-cultural framework is useful in numerous ways. But one of the main benefits is that it helps shift our focus from what “should” be happening to a more open, flexible, and emotionally neutral position. As a cultural outsider, our first task is to observe, explore, engage in conversations, and learn all we can, from a culturally respectful and non-judgmental perspective. Then, as that relief pilot said, we need to act from that base of understanding: show that we see and respect the norms, expectations, and what’s important to people in that culture, while still remaining grounded and solid in who we are. We don’t have to be like the people in that other culture. We can be ourselves, as long as we find enough points of connection … enough bridges of compassion, respect, and common experience … that we can build a critical mass of support to help us handle the other challenges and problematic actors we encounter along the way.


Everyone wants to be seen and respected. But if we’re the cultural outsider, we usually have to make the first move. Fair? Perhaps not. But often, being effective and getting positive results requires moving beyond what’s “fair” … as any married person knows, or at least learns over time. People are much more likely to make an effort to understand, respect, and support us if we’re willing to reach out and offer them those things first.


That’s easier said than done, of course. And the more barriers and burdens each of us have in our lives, the harder it is to consider or feel compassion for the pain and burdens of others. It’s why working mothers can end up resenting single women (or vice-versa) and minorities (rightfully) resent the privilege of those in the majority. Our lives and challenges feel so hard, it can be difficult to see beyond that, which makes building bridges across those differences harder. But those bridges are essential—not only to our survival, but also to our happiness. Because if we’re constantly fighting battles and feeling ineffective, it’s really hard to be happy.


Reframing our interactions with others as a cross-cultural challenge doesn’t make everything right or easy. But it can help us get beyond our own perspective and start finding and connecting potential threads of support and community across differences and divides. And that benefits us in two ways: first, by allowing us to be more effective in whatever environment we’re in, and second, by subtly influencing others to follow our lead in understanding the cultures, burdens, and perspectives of others. None of that changes the world by itself, or overnight. But it makes a difference. And it certainly makes a respectful, supportive and inclusive work environment a more achievable goal.

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