Functional trait differences among species are increasingly used to infer the effects of biotic and abiotic processes on species coexistence. Commonly, the trait diversity observed within communities is compared to patterns simulated in randomly generated communities based on sampling within a region. The resulting patterns of trait convergence and divergence are assumed to reveal abiotic and biotic processes, respectively. However, biotic processes such as competition can produce both trait divergence and convergence, through either excluding similar species (niche differences, divergence) or excluding dissimilar species (weaker competitor exclusion, convergence). Hence, separating biotic and abiotic processes that can produce identical patterns of trait diversity, or even patterns that neutralize each other, is not feasible with previous methods. We propose an operational framework in which the functional trait dissimilarity within communities (FDcomm) is compared to the corresponding trait dissimilarity expected from the species pool (i.e., functional species pool diversity, FDpool). FDpool includes the set of potential species for a site delimited by the operating environmental and dispersal limitation filters. By applying these filters, the resulting pattern of trait diversity is consistent with biotic processes, i.e., trait divergence (FDcomm > FDpool) indicates niche differentiation, while trait convergence (FDcomm < FDpool) indicates weaker competitor exclusion. To illustrate this framework, with its potential application and constraints, we analyzed both simulated and field data. The functional species pool framework more consistently detected the simulated trait diversity patterns than previous approaches. In the field, using data from plant communities of typical Northern European habitats in Estonia, we found that both niche-based and weaker competitor exclusion influenced community assembly, depending on the traits and community considered. In both simulated and field data, we demonstrated that only by estimating the species pool of a site is it possible to differentiate the patterns of trait dissimilarity produced by operating biotic processes. The framework, which can be applied with both functional and phylogenetic diversity, enables a reinterpretation of community assembly processes. Solving the challenge of defining an appropriate reference species pool for a site can provide a better understanding of community assembly.