5 Principles for Reframing Negative Events

A recent publication by Walton & Brady (2019) describes 5 principles for reframing negative events. These principles can be applied by the person who has experienced a negative event. But also by others such as, parents, teachers, doctors, managers, and so on.

The effect of negative interpretations

Bad things - setbacks, bad events - can happen to anyone. But how "bad" an event is depends at least in part on our own interpretation of the event. There are interpretations that can make the effects of events worse. These are interpretations in which the people involved draws negative conclusions about themselves, about (relationships with) others and about their options.

People do not arrive at their interpretations in isolation. How others react in their environment influences their own interpretations. Certain standard reactions from other people often do not work very well or even backfire. These are reactions such as: “It's not that bad, is it?”, “Come on, just get over it!”, “Be positive!”, “You just have to think about positive things!” These kinds of reactions can be perceived by the person who experienced the setback (and to whom the messages are therefore directed) as misunderstanding, impatient and too simple. They can even reinforce negative interpretations in certain cases.

5 Principles to help others arrive at more positive interpretations

Walton & Brady also describe interpretations that reduce the negative effects of events and can make positive effects more likely. These are:
  1. Avoid negative labels: After a negative event, there may be a tendency to view yourself and your circumstances in a negative and fixed way. This can make the situation worse. Effective reframing prevents negative labels and encourages a fundamentally positive view of the self, the factors that led to the bad news, and the person's future outlook.
  2. Communicate: "You are not alone": People may tend to think that they are the only ones who have certain problems. Effective reframing recognizes that others also have these kinds of problems and describes how they solved those problems.
  3. Recognize normal, specific causes: People may fear that bad events are indicative of their own deficiency (for example, laziness, stupidity, immorality). Effective reframing recognizes specific causes of the setback and legitimizes them as normal obstacles that arise for many people.
  4. Predict improvement: People may fear that negative events will predict a predetermined negative future. Effective reframing is collaborative and non-judgmental and emphasizes the possibility of improvement and a focus on the process of improvement.
  5. Highlight positive opportunities: In some cases, it is possible to interpret the “bad” event as positive, not just as something that can be overcome, but as a harbinger of or opportunities for growth and improvement. Effective reframing recognizes that negative events may sometimes eventually lead to positive outcomes.

Ways to intervene

These interventions only work if the person to whom they are addressed can fully internalize and fully endorse them. What will probably not work well is a convincing tone of voice (“What you just have to do is…”). A way of talking that appears insincere will not work either (so avoid insincere or exaggerated compliments and the like).

There are several ways to apply the interventions effectively:
  1. Directly formulated: in some cases interventions can be presented directly and in an informative manner. An example is: "Many students have to deal with this."
  2. Formulated less directly: in many cases it can help to present the intervention in a less direct (tentative) way, in the form of a suggestion or question. These subtle ways of intervening can help to activate the other person and make him think. This could aid the internalization of the reframed message.
  3. Via a structured experience: One way of intervening that can be very activating is to structure an experience that can help the other to develop a more positive interpretation. This could be a reflection exercise, for example. Because such a reflection exercise could have a progress-focused direction (For example, “Think about some ways this experience could potentially be educational for you”) it can have a self-persuating effect.


To familiarize yourself with these kinds of interventions, it can help to take a moment to put them into words. It helps to do this in writing. If someone asks you for help about a particular problem by email and you notice a negative way of interpreting that person, you could consider how these 5 principles can help you when drafting your response.