ClearerThinking.org founder Spencer Greenberg created this framework for handling challenging situations. We hope you find it useful!
Here's a simple framework for thinking through situations that are causing you harm.
All the possible responses to such problems can usually be categorized into just four types: Exit, Alter, React, or Reframe. Click here to use a simple tool that will walk you through this technique for analyzing any troublesome situation you might be experiencing.
So, if you're in such a situation, you could:
EXIT the situation so that it can’t harm you anymore. For instance, if you’re in a burning building, you can try to leave the building.
ALTER the nature or characteristics of the situation so that it harms you less, while still remaining in the situation, and otherwise behaving the same way you've been behaving. For instance, if you are cold because your heater broke, you can try to fix your heater.
REACT to the situation differently by changing your future behaviors, without trying to alter the nature of the situation itself and without exiting from it. For instance, if you’re doing badly in school, you can start paying more attention in class or spending more time on your homework.
REFRAME the situation to change your thoughts or feelings about it so that it's less harmful to you, without otherwise changing your behavior and without altering or leaving the situation. For instance, you might feel upset when friends don’t return your text messages quickly, since you interpret their silence as a sign that they don’t care about you. But you could try to reframe the situation by reminding yourself that your friends lead busy lives, which may be the cause of their slow responses rather than indifference.
It’s useful to keep this categorization in mind, since it’s easy to get stuck on just one or two possible solutions and miss out on a potentially better one. The key is to consider which of these strategies, or which combination of them, has the best chance of helping you achieve your goals (factoring in how likely each is to work and how costly each is). Applying this simple framework of four possibilities — "E.A.R.R" — can help structure your approach to all kinds of problems.
Consider this example to further illustrate the four approaches of E.A.R.R.. Suppose your boss is making you miserable by frequently getting angry and snapping at you at work. You could try any of the following four approaches:
If you think it would be easy to switch jobs and are excited to do so, you may choose to Exit.
If you think your boss is likely to stop mistreating you if you make a Human Resources complaint, you may choose to Alter.
If you see a clear-cut and undesirable pattern in your own behavior that’s triggering your boss’s anger, you may choose to React.
If you aspire to be the sort of person who can handle being snapped at without feeling bothered by it, and believe that you can come to feel differently about your boss’s behavior so that it bothers you a lot less, you may choose to Reframe.
Sometimes one type of E.A.R.R. strategy will clearly be inadequate for a certain problem. (For instance, don’t Reframe if you’re in a burning building that you can Exit safely from, and don’t Alter by trying to put the fire out if it has already grown huge!) But in a broad variety of cases, this framework will provide multiple reasonable methods that you could apply to the problem at hand.
So which method should you choose in a particular case? It depends on:
How likely you think each is to work.
How costly each is to carry out (in terms of time, money, pain, risk, frustration, emotional energy, etc.).
Your sense of justice or ethics. E.g., you may think it’s wrong to be treated that way by your angry boss, and therefore avoid using the Reframe strategy as a matter of principle, even if it would work.
So, if you are facing a situation that’s causing you harm, it may be helpful to start with the question: What would it look like to Exit, Alter, React, or Reframe in this particular case? This set of considerations can help you figure out what options are available to you, and which has the most to offer.
The boundaries between the four categories will not always be clear. For instance, if you’re doing badly in a class at school, you may think of "Exit" as quitting that class. But you could instead think of "Exit" as quitting school altogether, and consider quitting just that specific class to be your "Alter" option, since it’s altering your school environment. What’s more, not all four categories will apply in all situations. And there might occasionally be options that don't neatly fall into any of these four categories.
Nonetheless, I think that in most cases these four categories of options (Exit, Alter, React, Reframe) - or using your “E.A.R.R.”, if a silly acronym helps - provides a useful jumping off point to broaden your range of strategies, and helps you search for the best solution when a situation is causing you harm. And again, try this tool for a simple walkthrough of the E.A.R.R. approach.