Huh? – Shifting frames

What’s going on when you don’t get the kind of answer you expect from the question you ask?
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Presented at The Developing Group, 5 June 2010

This paper examines what happens when someone is asked a question within one frame and their answer appears to come from a different frame, e.g.

Do you want me to leave this coat out?
It needs to go to the cleaners.

How do you rate that cafe?
Lots of mothers go there with their kids.

And what would you like to have happen?
It’s never going to get better.

From the questioner’s point of view, this shift of frame is a kind of mismatch. However, it’s not a simple mismatch that disagrees or contradicts the original opinion. It is one that leaves the questioner thinking “What does this have to do with what I asked?”, and is summed up by the feeling “Huh?”. According to the dictionary ‘Huh’ is used to express confusion, surprise or disbelief. We would add that for a modeller it likely indicates something interesting has just happened.

We will also investigate when a questioner shifts frames in such a way that the listener goes ‘Huh?’, e.g.

I was an only child.
How does that make you feel?

I suppose you could say it was like a pizza.
And that a pizza like what?

Clients will often answer these kinds of questions to be polite, or because they think they should , or because people can make meaning out of almost anything. But not always. When James asked an out-of-frame question of a client’s metaphor:

It’s a stone.
And what would that stone like to have happen?

The client replied in a dismissive tone,

It’s just a stone. Stones don’t have likes.

James responded by moving back into the client’s frame:

And when stones don’t have likes, what do stones have?

and the client returned to the land of their metaphor.


The concept of ‘framing’ is used within linguistics, psychology, sociology and economics but not always in the same way. [1] The meaning we are using is:

Based on the metaphor ‘to enclose in a border; provide a border for’. By enclosing a communication within a metaphorical border, a frame helps to specify the elements in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others.

Frames are almost always in the background. They reside in the context. In language they are presupposed and responded to intuitively by native speakers. People’s metaphors give a lot of information about how they are framing their experience. [2]

Research into framing shows that how a question is framed can dramatically influence the answer. Tversky and Kahneman for example demonstrated systematic reversals of preference when the same situation is presented in different ways. [3]

Framing signs

We saw the following painted on a boarded-up shop in London:

DPT investing in the future of Exmouth Market.

From 1818-1824 Exmouth Market was home to Joe Grimaldi
inventor of the modern clown.

Enquires to MJ Mapp at 020 7908 5500.

It took a moment to figure out why we had a Huh? response. The juxtaposition of different frames means there is ambiguity about which of the first two statements the last sentence refers to. Or perhaps MJ Mapp is a property developer and an expert in the history of clowning.

And what about these signs?:


The first sign puts two conventionally incompatible frames together. There is a moment of suspension before they are sorted out and the humour apparent. We particularly like the “sign not in use” because the words are attempting to get outside the frame of the sign while at the same time being constrained to be a sign – sounds a bit like life to us.

To get closer to our topic of switching frames in relation to questions and answers, we offer you:

Grounds for Divorce?

A man goes into his lawyers office requesting a divorce. She is taking all of his background information and asks him, “Do you have grounds for a divorce?”

To which he replies, “Well, we have three acres.”

“No, sir. What I mean is, does she beat you up?” asks the attorney.

“No, I get up around 6:30 and she sleeps until 7:00,” he responds.

Feeling a little frustrated the attorney asks, “Sir, tell me, do you have a grudge?”

Looking very confident she states, “No, we have a carport.”

At this point the lawyer has lost her patience and asks, “Look, why the heck do you want a divorce?”

“Because she can’t hold an intelligent conversation!”

Questions and Answers

People do not respond randomly. They respond from the current organisation of their system. This means most shifts of frames will follow a pattern unique to the person. On our training we often say “every answer is perfect” because whatever a person says or does reveals something about their underlying organisation.

A series of Huh’s? lead us to discover one client’s pattern of not listening to questions. As soon as he had heard a few words he started formulating an answer without waiting for the question to finish. Much of the time he ended up answering a different question to the one asked. Of course he didn’t just do it with us. He drove his partner mad doing it – which just happens to be why he came to see us!

Another client used lots of emotion and feeling words but never answered a ‘Where’ or ‘Whereabouts’ question with a location related to their body:

I feel unable to decide.
And when you feel unable to decide, where do you feel that?
Sainsbury’s supermarket.

It transpired that although from the outside it was clear his body was reacting to our questions he had next to no awareness of any internal sensations. As a result he could spend hours not making small decisions, and years not making big decisions.

Understanding the frame of an answer relative to a question is not about predicting the answer. It is about knowing the class of answer that might be expected given the frame of the question. As in the last example, a ‘Where?’ or ‘Whereabouts?’ question invites an answer related to a location. However sometimes a client will respond with anything but a location:

I’m in pain.
And where is that pain?
It hurts.
or I feel vulnerable.
or I have an appointment with my doctor.

There can be any number of reasons for a switch of frame between question and answer. For example the answerer might:

Not have listened to the question.
Not have understood the question.
Not wanted to say ‘I don’t know’.
Not wanted to reveal the answer.
Not wanted to consider the answer.
Have done a lot of mental processing before they answered.
Be saying the first thing that comes to mind.
Be answering a different question (one they would rather have been asked).
Be saying what they think is more important (re-directing the facilitator/process).
Be trying to be helpful by answering what they think was really meant by the question.

And it is always possible that the answer was a location, but it wasn’t in a form that the facilitator recognised as a location.

Framing is a perceptual operation – something that happens within the mindbody of a person. It is therefore subject to the almost infinite variability of personal interpretation. The match or mismatch of frames during an interaction between questioner and answerer can come from:

  • The conformity (or not) to conventional frames e.g. past, present, future.[4]
  • The relative size of the frames – wide or narrow
  • The organizational level of each frame – e.g. pattern or content
  • The malleability of the frames – how easily they can accommodate different information.
  • The attachment to the frame – Am I acting ‘as if’ or is it part of my moral compass?
  • Who, how and where the perceiver is perceiving the frame.
  • The adjacency/closeness/distance of the two frames.


When we say a frame change can be ‘adjacent’ or ‘distant’ we are using the metaphor of relative location to indicate the degree of congruence between frames:

For example:

Fac: And when your family will not talk to you, what would you like to have happen?

C1:  To keep the door open to a reconciliation.
C2: I don’t want to go there.
C3: I can’t forgive them.

In terms of frames:

C1 is within the frame of a request for a desired outcome.

C2 is an adjacent response because it doesn’t answer the question, but it does indirectly acknowledge there is an answer to the question.

C3 is a shift to a new frame since whether they can or cannot forgive is not obviously germane to what they would like.

As a rule, the closer two frames are the harder it is to detect the shift. The more distant, the bigger the Huh?.

Nested frames

No one operates out of just one frame. We are always using multiple nested frames – frames within frames. It’s frames all the way up, and frames all the way down as the video The Powers of Ten (1977) graphically illustrates (it’s worth watching all the way through). [5]

Meta comments

At the human level, nested frames enables us to have sub-texts and meta-messages. A meta-comment is by definition a switch of frame: from the topic under discussion, to a comment about what a person is experiencing. If a facilitator is aware of these they have quite a tricky choice whether to respond to them, and if so, how to do it cleanly.

PRO Model

The Problem-Remedy-Outcome model was born because we realised that many facilitators could not determine when a client had switched frame. For example, a facilitator would ask ‘And what would you like to have happen?’ and the client might respond ‘I want to save my failing relationship.’ The facilitator would usually develop the problematic aspect of the client’s metaphor ‘failing relationship’ (and soon be enmeshed in a mass of detail), or develop their proposed remedy ‘to save’, not realizing that their request for a desired outcome remained unanswered.

The PRO model helps a facilitator keep a desired outcome in the mind of the client so that they have an opportunity to describe their experience within that frame.

PRO is part of our Framework for Change. In this process we highlight the need for the facilitator to be constantly on the alert for when something in the client’s interior landscape changes. That shift of frame by the client is the signal for the facilitator to drop anything else they were thinking of doing and ‘mature’ the change. That is to develop, evolve and extend the change into other areas of the landscape to see what happens. It is not the scale of the change that is important, it is the effect it ends up having. Small shifts can, through a contagion, trigger profound results.


We hypothesize that within any frame held by the client their attention is more on some parts than others and that some of the frame has a greater salience than others. Salience or importance is a kind of frame within a frame. The client can:

Attend to what’s salient
Attend to what’s not salient

Of course these are not digital categories. A facilitator needs both to acknowledge what the client is attending to, and direct their attention to what’s salient if that’s what’s not being attended to. Salience is a vital frame for a facilitator to keep in mind since they will constantly need to choose which piece of the client’s information to ask about. If the facilitator mis-models what is salient for the client their question can produce a Huh? response. However, sometimes the facilitator deliberately shifts the frame to bring something salient to the attention of the client:

C: The eagle is flying far far away, high and free.
F:  And as eagle is flying far far away, high and free, what happens to eggs in a nest that need protecting?

Social Norms

In ‘polite society’ there are certain unspoken norms about responding to shifts of frame, especially when the shift warns off the questioner from continuing, e.g.

That’s a hard question to answer. If I answered that there’s no telling what would happen. Whoa, that scares me silly, just thinking about it. You’ve got a cheek asking that. How dare you. What’s your purpose for asking that? Are you allowed to ask that?

A superb example of someone who ignored the social norm in order to pursue his agenda is the Jeremy Paxman interview with Michael Howard. Paxman became famous for asking the same question “Did you threaten to overrule him?” thirteen times. Interestingly Howard answers the first few questions of the interview directly and within the frame of Paxman’s questions. It is not until Paxman asks the “threaten” question that Howard displays his masterful ability to side-step the question by repeatedly answering from an adjacent frame.

A Symbolic Modeller has to decide how much they are going to abide by social norms. We believe that to some extent our contract with the client entitles us to break with some of the social niceties and pursue a line of questioning when we have evidence it relates to the client’s desired outcome (see Vectors below). Therefore a therapy session using Clean Language is not an ordinary conversation – nor should it be, because we are looking for out-of-the-ordinary results.

Double binds

Gregory Bateson’s Double Bind Theory suggests that in the extreme, parents who continually shift frames can provoke a ‘schizophrenic’ response when a child cannot resolve the incongruence between the frames. For example, how is a child meant to make sense of the following:

Child:    Mummy do you love me?
Mother: Only a bad boy would ask such a question.

Instead of answering the question within the frame – a request about her inner experience – the mother switches frame to imply a judgement on the boy for asking the question. Assuming the boy is unable or unwilling to comment on the switch, he’s stuck in a kind of limbo-land without an answer to his question and feeling punished for even asking. R.D. Laing suggested that the ‘sane’ response to such an ‘insane’ situation is what Western society regards as madness.


Our study of self-deception, delusion and denial revealed that interesting kinds of shifting frame are involved. In order to self-deceive a person has to have multiple ways to shift from any frame related to what they don’t want to be true, to a frame in which they can fool themselves into believing something they know isn’t true:

Did you consider the effect of your violent behaviour on your partner?
It wasn’t my fault.

Making frames conscious

In rare circumstances we highlight to a client their pattern of shifting frames – but only when we have clear behavioural evidence of the pattern and that it is related to them not achieving their desired outcome. For example, we worked with a manager who wanted “clearer communication” after receiving feedback from his staff that he often confused them. It became apparent that he had a habit of introducing this or that theory into a conversation, and then a personal anecdote, and then something else.

These additions often involved complex ideas that were not obviously related to the topic. We noticed that his initial comment would relate to the original frame but then he would slide from frame to frame. While each shift would connect to the one before, he got further and further away from the starting point. Interestingly, he would eventually return to the original topic. After witnessing a few of these digressions it was easy to see how his staff got confused and lost track of the purpose of the conversation.

To bring the pattern into his awareness Penny recapped several of our questions and his answers. “How long do you think your answers took?” she enquired. He thought for a while before replying, “A minute or two”. “It was actually at least seven or eight minutes” Penny informed him. He looked surprised. Penny reiterated the beginning of one of his answers and asked:

P:And what happens between [words indicating the end of Frame 1] and [words indicating the start of Frame 2]?
C:I go off.
P:And when you go off, where do you go off to?
C:[Long pause] It’s like stopping at a shop, getting out of the car and leaving the engine running while I go inside. Once in the shop I get interested in what’s in there. But then I remember the car and I leave the shop and drive off. When I’m in the shop, I guess I lose track of time.
P:And when that’s what happens, what would you like to have happen?
C:To remember the car while I’m in the shop. And sometimes to be able to drive by without stopping at all.

Rather than point out a pattern of shifting frames, another approach is to interrupt the pattern and find out how it works. We observed Caitlin Walker use a shift of frame in this way. One of the senior managers in a meeting would regularly interrupt his colleagues with new ideas. When he did it for the umpteenth time, Caitlin interrupted him just as he started speaking “And what happened just before you spoke?”. After a few clean questions he came to the insight “If I don’t say it when I think of it, I might lose the idea.” 

It had never occurred to him that his interruption could result in others losing their ideas. Once he understood this, rather than blurting out what he was thinking, it was easy for him to jot his ideas down until there was an appropriate gap in the conversation. To his complete surprise he discovered that even when some of his ideas did not get aired the meeting continued to a successful conclusion without them!

Responding to the frame of a question

For simplicity let’s assume two people (say a client and facilitator) each operate out of only one frame at a time. The client makes a statement (Frame 1). The facilitator can either ask a question within the client’s frame (Frame 1w/in) or outside it (Frame 3). The client now has six ways to respond to the frame of a question :
Client Facilitator Client
a. Frame 1 Frame 1w/in Frame 1w/in Client follows the frame of question (which was within the previous frame)
b.      “      “ Frame 1 Client remains with their frame but not within frame of question.
c.      “      “ Frame 2 Client shifts to a new frame (regardless of the question).
d.      “ Frame 3 Frame 3 Client follows the facilitator’s lead into the new frame.
e.      “      “ Frame 1 Client remains with their previous frame, even though the question suggests a new frame.
f      “      “ Frame 2 Client responds to request for a shift of frame with a different frame.
[Where ‘Frame 1w/in’ is a frame within Frame 1, and Frames 2 and 3 are outside Frame 1.] In practical terms the client has only three choices:

a / d   To follow the frame of the question. b / e   To remain within their previous frame. c / f    To shift to a new frame.

e.g. Imagine a client says (Frame 1):

The only person I can neglect without hurting anybody else is me.

The facilitator initially has two choices: To remain within the client’s frame, or to invite the client to shift to a different frame, e.g.

a / b / c      And what kind of me is that me that you neglect? or d / e / f     And where does your neglect come from?

To which the client might reply:

a.    (Frame 1w/in)    A me that I don’t care about. b.    (Frame 1)          I’ve never knowingly hurt anyone else. c.    (Frame 2)          My health is getting bad. d.    (Frame 3)          My father never showed me how to love myself. e.    (Frame 1)          I’ve never knowingly hurt anyone else. f.     (Frame 2)          My health is getting bad.

In answers (a) and (d) the client accepts the facilitator’s lead and answers within the frame set by each question.

Whereas in (b) and (e) the client gives the same answer to completely different questions, and similarly in (c) and (f). If a client chooses to switch frame it appears that the question becomes irrelevant. We say ‘appears’ because if the client ignores the question they can respond with almost anything – anything that is except whatever is within the frame of the question. And how they do that can be valuable information.

Continuing the six client-facilitator interactions above shows that the facilitator has the same two choices – to remain within the client’s frame, or to invite the client to shift to a different frame – but in (c), (e) and (f) they have two further options:

Client Facilitator Client Facilitator
g. Frame 1 Frame 1w/in Frame 2 Frame 1 To invite a return to the client’s previous  frame.
h. Frame 1 Frame 3 Frame 1 or 2 Frame 3 To continue with the frame of their previous question.
In Symbolic Modelling terms, the above are examples of particular parts of the process:

a.     Is the aim of developing questions.

d.    Is the aim of moving time and intention questions.

g.    Is involved in backtracking and spreading an effect (of a desired outcome, a resource, or a change).

h.    Will be part of a vector.


In Symbolic Modelling we define a vector as “a facilitator’s desired process outcome for the client”. In other words, the facilitator chooses a frame or within which they ask a series of questions (typically between three and ten). Having chose a frame for good reasons, the facilitator attempts to stay within the frame unless or until something happens to make another frame more salient. This means the ‘end’ of a vector is rarely reached because a new frame is usually chosen part-way through.

The framing of Clean Language

When we modelled David Grove one of the ways we organized his clean questions was by similarity of frame:

Developing questions hold time still and keep attention within the current frame.

Moving time questions invite a shift of attention to another timeframe.

Intention questions request a shift of attention to a frame involving agency or contingency.

Specialised questions require a presupposition to exist within the client’s language before they can be asked.

The following is an example of how the ‘size or shape?’ specialised question can used within and outside the client’s frame: [6]

It’s like freedom.

And does freedom have a size or a shape?

It’s a feeling like freedom.

And does that feeling have a size or a shape?

‘Freedom’ is an abstract concept which does not typically have a form with a size or a shape. Therefore there is a good chance the question will be outside the frame of the statement. Whereas ‘a feeling’ is usually associated with sensations that are experienced in a particular area and so are likely to have a size or a shape, in which case the locus of the question would be within the frame.

You can also view the syntax of Clean Language (And  – when – question) as a way to specify the frame within which a question is asked, i.e.

Andpresupposes what follows is connected to whatever was just said.
whenspecifies a context/frame within which the following question is to be understood.
questioneach CLQ presupposes a certain frame, e.g. a description or identification of an attribute or characteristic, a location, a metaphor, etc.

Clean Space

In Clean Space there are two primary questions:
And what do you know from there? Asks from the space where the client is.
And is there anything else you know from there about […]? Asks about another space.
And two primary instructions:
And find another space. Directs client to move to a new space.
And return to […]. Directs client to return to an existing space.
By moving from space to space the client is effectively moving from frame to frame. One of the great values of Clean Space is that it facilitates a client to spatially separate their frames, to regard them from different perspectives and to consider how they are related.

Exemplar modelling

We’ve noticed that experienced modellers are usually aware of the frame a person is answering from, especially when it is not obviously the frame set by the question. This awareness gives a modeller the choice to:

– Continue pursuing the frame of their original question
– Follow the client’s attention into the new frame
– Find out how the client arrived at their answer given the frame of the question.

It can be useful for a modeller to develop an awareness of their signal that gets activated when a client responds outside the frame of the question – and metaphor is a good way to do this. Penny’s signal is a yellow light that comes on, and James’ is an out-of-alignment feeling.

What kind of frames do we adopt when we are exemplar or product modelling (rather than therapeutic modelling)? To start with we attend to ‘what happens’ and our questions will be almost exclusively about that.

As straightforward as it sounds this is not what most people do. For example when we ask a group of students what they noticed about a demonstration we have just done, they mostly ask us questions about what didn’t happen, or they bring in something outside the frame of the discussion/debrief, e.g.:

Why didn’t you … ?
What if they’d said … ?
What do you think would have happened if you had … ?
You didn’t … .
I wouldn’t have … .
That’s just like [another process].
That doesn’t fit with [reference to a source external to the training].
I notice the client was [categorization by another model].
Can you apply this process to [another context]?

We are not saying these are not valuable questions and comments. We are saying these students are not attempting to model what happened and their response takes our, and the groups’ attention away from the frame of our original request.

Once we have identified a substantial amount of what happens, our next step is to model ‘missing pieces’ within the frame. These might be unspecified areas, gaps in a sequence, apparent illogicalities, conflicting or discordant statements, blind spots, etc. This is precisely what David Grove was referring to when he said: “I’m looking for what’s not there, that needs to be there, for what is there to make sense.”

Only after modelling what happens and the missing pieces do we move to outside what happens. And our first port of call will usually be to an adjacent context/frame. For example, does a particular process apply in a similar context not yet discussed?

Finally, we may choose to bring in a distant frame or context either for comparative purposes or (more provocatively) to see how the person’s system responds.

To summarise, our modelling follows a sequence of frames:

What’s there
What’s not there within what’s there
What’s outside of and adjacent to what’s there
What’s outside of and distant to what’s there

Generally we spend most time in the first frame, less in the second, less in the third and less in the fourth.

Concluding remarks

In order for a facilitator to shift frames consciously they need to know three things: what frame the client is attending to, what frame is presupposed by their question, and what frame the client answers from.

Given clients can answer whatever they like, it is up to the facilitator to track the changing frames during a session. While few facilitators can keep track of all the client’s frames, there are two particularly important frame changes they need to be aware of:

Has the client’s attention moved into or out of the frame of their current desired outcome?


Has a change just happened?

What a frame is, what is ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ a frame, and whether frames match or mismatch can be the topic of endless debate – depending on your way of framing. However it appears we cannot not use frames if we want to make sense of the world and our fellow human beings.

Furthermore, using a question to switch frames or switching frames with an answer may not carry much significance in an everyday conversation, but is vital to the modelling process.


1 Framing and reframing play an important role within NLP. See Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s Reframing: Neurolinguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning(1983) where they distinguish between:

Context reframing When content is put into a different context its meaning changes.
Content reframing When content is considered in the same context, but from a different perspective, intention or level, its meaning changes.

Also see Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier, Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP.

2 For a discussion about the relationship between metaphor and political frames see George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, (2004). See also: George Lakoff in a 5 minute video: Idea Framing, Metaphors, and Your Brain.

3 Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453–458.

In an experiment called ‘The Asian Disease Problem’, participants were asked to “imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows.”

The first group of participants were presented with a choice between two programs:

Program A: “200 people will be saved”
Program B: “There is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved”

72 percent of participants preferred program A (the remainder, 28 percent, opting for program B).

The second group of participants were presented with the choice between:

Program C: “400 people will die”
Program D: “There is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die”

In this decision frame, 78 percent preferred program D, with the remaining 22 percent opting for program C.

Programs A and C are identical, as are programs B and D. The change in the framing between the two groups produced a preference reversal: when the programs were presented in terms of lives saved, the participants preferred the more secure program, A (= C). When the programs were presented in terms of expected deaths, participants chose the gamble D (= B)

4 Edward Hall made the distinction between cultural frames when he highlighted cultures that presuppose “high context” frames (i.e. large presupposition of existing knowledge, as in Japan), or “low context” frames (i.e. more explanatory information given, as in Germany).

The work of Clare Graves and the offspring Spiral Dynamics are good examples of models of frames that operate at a group/society level.

5 There is also a shorter version made for The Simpsons.

6 In Six Blind Elephants: Understanding Ourselves and Each Other, Volume I, Steve Andreas devotes a section to analysing David Grove’s Clean Language. Steve frames the clean questions using his ‘category’ and ‘scope’ distinctions.

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