13 min read

Reframing: Coping strategies for resilient leaders

Reframing: Coping strategies for resilient leaders
Reframing is similar to refracting light through a prism.


It’s critical for leaders to manage their thoughts, emotions and behaviors in the face of a multitude of stressors. In enterprises large and small, strategic shifts, mergers, acquisitions, ownership changes, restructuring, private/venture equity influences, and cost-cutting initiatives surface as frequent challenges. Through this barrage of change, leaders must regulate their reactions and coping responses — in part because they signal to others how to respond to that adversity, and also because they need to maintain their own energy and motivation to persist in the face of challenges.

In this article, I will describe a resilience-building skill that can help leaders manage their emotions, cope with adversity, and better adapt their mindset in the face of stressful change. This skill is called Reframing.

I will start by defining Reframing, and then elaborate on some of the underlying psychological principles that make Reframing effective. I’ll then share ten different techniques leaders can use to reframe, followed by two final keys to keep in mind when applying Reframing.


I define Reframing as the conscious process of trying to see a situation from different perspectives. Often those new perspectives are more positive, more motivating, and help you cope with uncertainty.

Another way to think about Reframing is as reinterpreting a difficult or stressful event by working to see it in a different way.

Two analogies might be helpful to illustrate this practice. First think of Reframing as light refracting through a prism. White light enters into the prism as a single stream, but leaves in a broad spectrum of rainbow colours. Reframing is similar in that you may experience a stimulus in one way at first, but with some additional effort, you can reinterpret it so that it reveals a broader spectrum of perspectives or meanings — many of those more energizing.

Another useful analogy is seeing images in the clouds. You may have found yourself lying in the grass in a park, on a summer day, staring up at the clouds. At first you view the clouds as amorphous, but if you exert some imagination, you might start to recognize distinct shapes: animals, mountains, cotton balls. Reframing is similar in that you may experience a situation one way at first, but with some cognitive effort, new (and more positive) interpretations start to emerge.

Reframing is similar to trying to find images in the clouds; at first we interpret a stressful situation one way, but with some effort we can reinterpret it in a more positive way.

Here are some more specific examples of Reframing. One is redefining a problem as a challenge, which you might do in a couple of ways. One way is as something to fight back against, an affront that elicits a competitive response from you. You might say “I’m going to beat this, I’m not going to let this adversity win!” Another way to see a problem is as a learning challenge, or an opportunity to grow from a difficult experience.

An example of Reframing is redefining a problem as a challenge. To me this activity looks like a problem! But to this guy, it’s something interesting and challenging.

Another Reframing example is taking a long-term perspective. I’ll illustrate this with a short personal story. I have three young kids at home, and one is my son who is 2. At this young age, he is already growing into an assertive, independent little person. However, sometimes when he is asserting himself, usually while conveying strong emotions at high volume, I say to myself, “Ok Tim, you have to respond as the parent, so what are you going to say?” In those instances I try to think of a long-term perspective. I think, “When I look back on this moment a year from now, how will I have wanted to respond?” or "What's my long term vision for how I want to 'be' as a parent, and how can I stick to that in this moment?" I find getting in touch with a long-term vision helps me stay calm, and respond with more empathy. In a similar way, when leaders connect with a long-term vision of how they want to behave or react, it can help them cope with adversity.

Another example of Reframing is taking a long-term perspective. I think of this strategy when trying to decide how to respond to my independent-minded 2 year old son!


In this article I’ve used the term Reframing as a short-hand that integrates several emotion-regulation and coping strategies, all with established track records of efficacy. In this section, I’ll describe each of those strategies, and share some supportive evidence behind each. Think of this section as ‘looking under the hood’ of Reframing, to see what principles drive its effectiveness.

Cognitive reappraisal involves changing the way you think about an emotional stimulus in order to change its impact on you. This involves thinking about a stressful situation in any way that makes you feel calm, for example perceiving the back-and-forth dialogue in a job interview as a chance for both parties to learn more, rather than as a test. Research finds engaging in cognitive reappraisal predicts higher life satisfaction, greater sharing of emotions with others, greater peer-rated likability, closer relationships, better coping with psychological disorders (i.e., anxiety, depression), and higher psychological well-being.

Positive reappraisal involves identifying positive meaning in negative stressors, by focusing on the ‘good’ that is happening or that has happened. You can also think of this practice as ‘benefit finding.’ For example, during Covid some people engaged in positive reappraisal about lockdowns, pivoting to see the benefits or silver linings in the form of spending more time with children. Positive reappraisal is associated with more frequent experiences of growth after a traumatic injury, better coping among breast cancer patients, fewer depressive symptoms, and more effective coping among both oncology nurses and US military service members.

Cognitive restructuring involves identifying negative interpretations of an event that are unrealistic and replacing them with more realistic interpretations. An example of this is spotting an irrational thought and trying to reappraise it, or noticing a bias or error in your thinking about a situation and then challenging yourself to generate alternative ways of seeing the situation that corrects that bias. Researchers find that cognitive restructuring is effective in treating PTSD, social phobia, anger, chronic pain, negative self-directed thoughts, and fear/emotion regulation.

Acceptance-based thinking involves becoming aware of and accepting of how one feels, without trying to change those emotions. For example, you could tell yourself that you accept that something has happened and that it cannot be changed. Or you could resign yourself to live with a situation that may be difficult. At first acceptance-based thinking seems at odds with how I’ve defined Reframing, and cognitive/positive reappraisal (i.e., which all involve working to change your emotional state, while acceptance involves engaging with your current negative experience). However I’m still bundling these coping strategies all under the heading of Reframing. The reasons for this are a) acceptance, like reappraisal, involves conscious effort, and b) increasing our level of acceptance can reveal new interpretations of our reality, just as much as reappraisal can. Researchers find that acceptance-based thinking reduces negative emotions, improves coping in breast cancer patients, and reduces anxiety and depression among those with chronic pain.

Coping statements are short self-talk statements that encourage persisting with or reassessing a situation in a more positive light. They help anchor our thinking to the present moment, and to positive references. For example, when experiencing a stressful situation, you might say to yourself “this too shall pass,” or “one step at a time, I can handle it,” or “no matter how bad it gets, I can do it.” Researchers find that coping statements help increase perceptions of control over physical pain, and are also linked with fewer depressive symptoms in those experiencing chronic pain.


In this section, I describe ten different approaches to Reframing, which leaders can use when confronted with a change, challenge or adversity. For most I’ve also included several questions leaders can ask themselves, in order to encourage each type of reframe. I suggest leaders consider using this list of coping tactics like a checklist, to generate ideas on managing their thoughts, emotions, and reactions in the face of stress.

Acceptance-based thinking

To recap, this involves becoming aware of, and accepting in a non-judgmental way, a situation or your reaction to a situation. It involves staring straight at the thing that is causing you pain, becoming fully aware of it, tolerating it, and ultimately accepting it.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to foster this mindset:

1. How can I accept things I can’t control?

2. How can I adapt to this?

3. If I were to engage in ‘radical acceptance’ of this situation/my reaction, what would that look like and how would it feel?

4. How can I create realistic expectations for myself and others?

It may seem counterintuitive that focusing on a stressor, and compelling yourself to accept it, should produce positive outcomes. And it is true that this approach may increase your negative feelings in the short term, as you feel the full brunt of the challenge you face. But after acceptance takes hold, often those negative initial feelings recede. Why?

Researchers think that acceptance-based thinking works well for four reasons:

1. You spend less time/energy fighting something you cannot control and move on more quickly (i.e., it increases behavioral flexibility).

2. It promotes self-awareness.

3. It promotes self-compassion.

4. It reduces the energy drain of ‘secondary emotions’ (e.g., if you feel anxious about a challenge, you might also feel guilty that you feel that anxiety; the guilt is a secondary emotion).

Possible alternatives

This involves thinking of as many different ways to perceive a situation as possible. Think of it as brainstorming different perspectives about a situation. Sometimes we get stuck in our initial (and sometimes emotional) reaction to a challenge, and this approach encourages us to be more flexible in our thinking.

Here are some questions you can foster this mindset:

1. What are some other ways to see this? (Try to think of as many as possible.)

2. If I was the other person in this interaction, how would I be seeing it?

3. Think outside the box: What if money were no object? In an ideal situation, what would you/we do?

Positive reappraisal

As a reminder, this approach involves seeing the benefits or the silver lining, and identifying the ‘good’ in the situation you’re in. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to foster this mindset:

1. What are the positives of this situation?

2. What energizes me to want to tackle this as a challenge instead of an obstacle?

3. What are the strengths I, my team, or the organization bring to navigate through this?

Long-term perspective

Again, this tactic involves taking a step back and looking at a situation with a wider lens, focusing on the big picture view of how you want to behave or react.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to foster this mindset:

1. How will I want to look back on my actions one year from now? Five years from now?

2. What is the long game? The big picture? How can I keep that in my sights?

Moving from problem to opportunity

This involves seeing opportunistic potential, or dimensions that might benefit you, amid a challenge or stressor.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to foster this mindset:

1. How can I find purpose or meaning in this difficult event?

2. How can I make lemonade out of lemons?

3. What can I hope to learn?

4. What skills can I develop?

5. How can I benefit from this challenge?

6. How can I use this change to build something better (e.g., a new culture, a new business)?

See the ‘truth’ in others’ perspectives

This involves the idea that in organizations, there is often no absolute ‘truth.’ For example, if I asked ten people in an organization their perspective on a critical issue, they may all have different views and disagree. However, if you dig deeper, you might find that each of their perspectives is based on rational conclusions, the information available to them, and their direct experience. There would be some validity to each person’s perspective.

The Reframing skill here is to see the ‘truth’ in other people’s perspectives, and to realize that though it seems illogical, two people can have different views yet both be right.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to foster this mindset:

1. What am I missing? Where is the kernel of truth in the other side?

2. How can I validate both sides in this interaction?

3. What are the similarities (rather than differences) that I share with this other person?

4. How can I move my mindset from ‘either-or’ to ‘both-and’? How can I move from ‘always’ or ‘never’ to ‘sometimes’?

There are two key benefits of using this Reframing approach. First, when you accept someone’s point of view as different but valid, it means you don’t have to invest energy in proving you’re right and the other person is wrong. Second, agreeing to disagree creates space for both people in the relationship. If you can’t see the validity of another person’s perspective, it’s hard to maintain a relationship with them. Seeing their ‘truth’ is a more inclusive approach to relationships.

Look for where you have more influence than you think

Sometimes in organizations, we underestimate the amount of influence we have. We think that if only we were more senior, we’d be able to influence the business and the stakeholders the way we want. However, leaders by definition have considerable influence — power that is both formal and informal — though during times of crisis it may not feel that way. This Reframing approach involves searching around, as if looking in the dark with a flashlight, to see where you can exert influence in other ways.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to foster this mindset:

1. Where can I have some influence even if I’m not calling the shots?

2. If these are the cards I’ve been dealt, what’s my best play?

3. What are the levers I can pull? Which of them will change the dynamics of the situation?

Generate coping statements for tough moments

To reiterate, coping statements are short self-talk statements that encourage persisting or thinking about a situation in a more positive light. They are useful because they help anchor our thinking to the present moment, and to more positive reference points.

Here are some examples of coping statements you can generate:

1. “What I’m going through is normal, many people go through it.”

2. “I will make it out of this.”

3. “I’m doing the best I can.”

4. “I can stand it.”

5. “I will be ok.”

6. “It won’t last forever.”

7. “Even though things in this organization are changing, many things I like are staying the same.”

Draw on a compassionate perspective

Drawing on a compassionate perspective means expressing empathy, warmth, and understanding towards oneself or others during times of strain.

Here are some questions you can ask to foster this mindset:

1. Change is hard. How can I acknowledge how it is affecting me without getting stuck?

2. What am I doing well, even if no one sees it?

3. How can I see the good in others even in tough moments?

4. What am I grateful for right now?

Spot and reframe cognitive bias

This skill involves identifying negative interpretations of an event that are unrealistic, and replacing them with more realistic frames of mind.

These negative or unrealistic interpretations arise as a result of biased thinking — called cognitive distortions — that everybody falls prey to.

To illustrate, here are a few examples of cognitive distortions:

1. Filtering: Only letting negative information into your mind, and magnifying those details, while filtering out positive information. For example, getting positive financial results about the business, but over-focusing on one area where goals were missed, and ignoring all the positive results.

2. Black/White thinking: Placing people or situations in ‘either/or’ categories, allowing for no complexity. If a situation falls short of perfect, it’s seen as a total failure. For example, telling yourself “we have to execute this change initiative perfectly, otherwise we’ll be a complete failure!”

3. Overgeneralizing: Seeing a single negative event as a never ending pattern of defeat. This involves using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’. For example, after downtime of a manufacturing line saying “we will never get this line back up and running.”

4. Mind-reading: Making negative assumptions about what others are thinking about you. For example saying to yourself “Because Joe is in a different function than me, he won’t like my ideas on how to drive this change initiative.”

5. Emotional reasoning: Assuming negative emotions reflect the way things really are. For example thinking “I feel angry about these changes that are taking place. This proves I’m being treated unfairly.”

Here are several ways you can reframe cognitive biases or distortions:

1. Identify the distortion: Write down your thoughts and check if you're using any distortions. This will make it easier to think about the problem in a more positive/realistic way.

2. Check the facts: Instead of assuming a negative thought is true, examine the evidence for it first.

3. Experiment: Do an experiment to test the validity of your negative thought. You may find it to be unfounded.

4. Survey: Ask others questions to find out if your thoughts/attitudes are realistic.

5. Think in shades of grey: Instead of thinking in all-or-nothing extremes, evaluate situations on a range from 0 to 100. When things don’t work out as well as you hoped, think about the experience as a partial success rather than a complete failure.


I'd like to make two final suggestions to keep in mind as you’re applying Reframing.

First, remember that WE have to make the shift in mindset. No one else can do this for us. We have to CHOOSE to reframe.

Second, it’s important that we both acknowledge the difficult aspects of our experience, and yet not get stuck in them. We have to look at the pain, stress and difficulty we are facing — after all, Reframing isn't about denial. It involves tolerating the pain, and seeking to accept it. But leaders can’t stay in the acknowledgment stage forever. Eventually we have to pick ourselves up, reframe, pivot, and take action in a new and positive direction.


Reframing is a powerful set of evidence-based skills that can help leaders navigate and guide others through times of change, challenge and adversity. I hope this article has given you ideas that will help you build resilience and strength to withstand whatever leadership challenges the future may bring.

When Reframing in the future, remember the words of Albert Einstein:

“The world we have created is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

This quote reminds us that we have more power over our thoughts than we realize, and that by changing those thoughts, we can change ourselves and the world around us.

That is the power of Reframing.

Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has worked with and advised leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He’s also partnered with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.

Email: tjackson@jacksonleadership.com

Web: www.jacksonleadership.com

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