Framing And Reframing

Framing and Reframing

Nicole was frustrated: “I know I’m behind on the rent – business is slow and I can’t afford $9,000 a month for this place! George needs to get real! He’s made a ton of money from me.  He needs to stop being so greedy… I only can pay $7,000 a month… at least until business improves.”

George exclaimed ‘$7,000! I should go broke because she’s lazy? She’s never in the shop! I go by almost every day on my way home… no Nicole!” Nicole scowled.

The mediator raised an eyebrow. “Two thousand less a month, Nicole? For what, two more years on the lease? That’s nearly $50,000. “

Nicole protested “It wouldn’t be for the whole two years! And I’d pay it back!”

George scoffed “How? You’re too lazy to make any money!”

“I won’t make any money anyway in that run-down store! Why go?  You need to make repairs, Mr. Greedy, so the ceiling doesn’t fall on my customers.”

‘Repairs? How, Ms. Lazy, with no rent from you to pay for them?”

The mediator intervened firmly. “Stop. This is a mediation, not a name-calling contest. You two agreed to be civil. You came here to settle.  Keep that in mind.” The mediator studied Nicole.  “You call George greedy.  But is he really?  Doesn’t he have expenses just like you?

 George nodded eagerly in agreement. Nicole frowned, saying “I guess so”

“And George, you own a store too – would people come in if it were run down? Honestly?

Fidgeting, George admitted “Less would come.”

“So this isn’t a story about Greedy and Lazy, is it? It’s a story about George, who needs rent to cover costs, and Nicole, who needs repairs done before customers will come. I think we can find a solution. Don’t you?”

The scenario above illustrates two related concepts important to mediation: Framing and re-framing.  Frames are the stories we tell ourselves and others about the origin and nature of the conflict –mental shortcuts that make it easier to think about and justify the conflict we’re in, and that help us decide our positions. Frames are filters – they blur details and often cause us to ignore viable solutions that don’t fit our preconceptions. Reframing challenges the usefulness of our filters, and forces us to look at our conflict differently.

Section I – Framing

Kaufman and Smith identify seven different conflict frames: substantive, loss/gain, characterization, process, outcome, aspiration, and complexity. Descriptions and examples are set forth in Table 1.

Table 1: Frame types with their definitions and examples

Frame type Definition Examples
Substantive The consequences of actions and changes are at the core of disputes Convalescent hospitals are usually expected to bring down neighboring property values.
Loss/Gain Uncertain choices are presented either in terms of gains or losses. A new policy can be presented in terms of dollars saved or dollars lost.
Characterization Evaluations of others’ behavior, attitudes, motives or trustworthiness drive the dispute. “Environmentalists are extremists always opposing economic development.”
Process A process frame gives importance to steps, decision rules, and processes inherent conflicts. Locating a new highway interchange results from political pressure rather than need.
Outcome Conflicts are interpreted in terms of parties’ positions, often expressed as preferred solutions. A developer insists that only a specific number of housing units is the key to the project’s success.
Aspiration Disputants evaluate options in terms of their needs, interests, desires or concerns. Projects ranking regional environmental risks reflect participants’ desires regarding quality of life.
Complexity This frame reflects the value placed on scientifically-based information Science- or technology-based information is either given undue deference or irrationally distrusted, slanting the perception of the conflict.

The frames we use strongly affect which approaches to resolving conflicts will be most effective.  Below are comments concerning each type of frame, which may be useful in reframing disputes.  Reframing is discussed in Section II.

Substantive frames will be sensitive to demonstrations that the assumed consequence of an action are not so. Provable f­actual arguments will be persuasive.  Also, decreasing the importance of consequences by highlighting other concerns can be helpful:

“Fred, I know you’re concerned that a convalescent hospital will drive down home prices.  Let’s say it will.  But think about it.  Suppose you had to be in such a place. Wouldn’t you want it in your neighborhood so your family could visit?  If we force all the hospitals way across town, no one will come.  And the defendants tell me that visitors help people get better.  Isn’t that important?

Now the substantive issue is admitted, but another issue is presented as equal or greater in importance.

Loss/gain frames are very powerful. The same outcome can often be framed as a gain or a loss. How it is framed has a strong impact on decision-making. People are risk-averse where the transaction is framed as a gain and risk-seeking where it is framed as a loss.  That is, we avoid risk to protect our gains but will take a risk to avoid loss. Here’s a famous example. A group of doctors is asked to choose treatment programs concerning a hypothetical Asian flu that will take 600 lives if nothing is done.  Doctors face this scenario:

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability

that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability

that no people will be saved.

Almost three-quarters choose to save 200, rejecting the risker program that might save everyone.  Framing the problem as a gain makes the doctors risk averse – though 400 people will die.  In contrast, they seek risk when they are faced with this scenario:

If Program C is adopted, 400 people will die.

If Program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die
and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

Rather than face the sure loss of 400 lives, about three-quarters of the doctors now choose Program D embracing the high probability that all will die – a probability they rejected in Problem 1. This demonstrates the overall importance of framing as well as the benefit of framing preferred options as gains rather than losses.

Characterization frames are about the people more than the problem.  To one in this frame, the people are the problem. An example is the scenario above between Nicole and George in which they framed one another as “lazy” and “greedy.”  The stereotypes and prejudices often involved are difficult to alter. Also, such frames generate strong counter-productive emotions, which the mediator must learn to diffuse.

One way to do this is to engage the rational part of the brain, which will in turn disengage the amygdala – the emotional part of the brain.   Seeking explanations, holding participants accountable, asking them to plan or brainstorm —  all of these are reliable ways of calming emotions.

Process frames focus on steps that have been or must be taken.  The process may be seen as unfair, inefficient, incomplete, corrupt – or absolutely necessary and fair. It is important to counter perceptions of unfairness, because even a highly beneficial offer will be rejected if it is seen as unfair.  The “ultimatum game,” is a psychological experiment that shows this.  There are two “players.” Player One is given an amount of money and instructed to offer some amount to Player Two. If Player Two accepts the amount, both keep the cash. If Player Two rejects the offer, both walk away with nothing.

The economically rational move is for Player Two to take whatever is offered. (It’s more than she came in with.) But most people reject anything under 30 percent of the total, taking revenge for offers they think are unfair, even to their own detriment.

Outcome frames focus on the parties’ positions and preferred solutions.  Disputants locked into positions often have problems moving toward alternate solutions. The bargaining becomes adversarial, and a new goal – saving face – becomes important. Outcome frames may lead to positional bargaining in which the parties “split the baby” roughly in half.

Aspirational frames focus on the needs and wants of the participants. Such frames lend themselves to “interest based,” or “integrative” bargaining.  An interest is defined as a need, concern, desire, fear, want that drives the participant’s position.  The core principle of interest based problem-solving is that life does not have to be a zero-sum game.  Working together, all can address their interests.

Complexity frames Although Kaufman and Smith identify trust or distrust in scientifically based information as a complexity “frame,” it really isn’t a conflict frame at al. It isn’t a story about the dispute.  It’s an attitude toward the source of information concerning the dispute.  It may be easy or difficult to address, depending on the strength of the attitude and availability of the relevant information from scientific as well as non-scientific sources.

Kaufman and Smith’s listing of conflict frames is useful but not exhaustive.  There are as many frames as there are stories we can tell ourselves about a conflict or its disputants. The following passage about framing comes from a course in Strategic Leadership and Decision-making taught at National Defense University (NDU), part of the United States Department of Defense. The passage emphasizes the importance of using more than one frame to understand the conflict.

“While we may have an inclination to use one frame over another to look at a situation, we might not make full sense of a situation by doing so. If nothing else, knowledge of the frames should alert the strategic leader of the importance of applying all the frames to a situation in order to leverage the best possible solution.”

What this means is that the diligent neutral (or indeed, the thoughtful disputant) needs to ask questions and listen to understand the frames involved. He or she also needs to dig, because our frames are sometimes unconscious.  But it is possible to discover even unconscious frames.

Remember, frames are stories we use to make sense of conflict.  Ask for the ‘story’ behind the dispute.  What does the disputant emphasize? People talk about what matters to them. Is the conversation about the people involved? Be alert for characterization frames. The positions?  Look for outcome frames. A party’s needs? Consider aspirational frames.  And so on. Ask questions about the cause of the dispute, what’s most important to reaching a resolution, or what’s in the way. In addition to casting light on possible solutions, the answers can give clues to framing.

And as the NDU passage points out, consciously considering the dispute in light of multiple frames will enhance the ability to understand the problem and craft creative and workable solutions.

Finally, as Professor Ehsan Zaffar has stressed, even the most careful neutral will approach a dispute inside his or her own frame and with his or her own preferred solution.  Consciously seeking to understand one’s frames and a commitment to transparently sharing them with disputants where they become an issue is the best response.

Section II – Reframing

While Zaffar notes that reframing, like framing, can be unconscious justification, for our purposes reframing is an intentional redefinition, emphasis, re-contextualization or retelling of some part or parts of the conflict saga – without changing the story elements. As mediator, therapist and professor Bernard Mayer has put it: ‘”The art of reframing is to maintain the conflict in all its richness but to help people look at it in a more open-minded and hopeful way.” Re-framers are not authors, they are storytellers.  The tale is already set.   And yet the storyteller can influence the audience greatly by how the tale is told.


Reframing often involves changing a party’s or event’s role in a counterpart’s essential story. For a person, the change might be from villain to ordinary citizen, or from eccentric to someone with the same needs I have.  For example, in the vignette involving George and Nicole, the mediator redefined counterproductive characterization stories into aspirational frames about the parties’ needs. None of the facts changed. Yet settlement is closer.  Once the frame moves from “X is bad” to “X has needs,” the parties need not be judgmental or defensive and the search for a solution meeting the needs of all can begin.

But focusing on the other party like this is hard. It is human nature to see negative behavior by an adversary as caused by their inherent flaws, while seeing our own similar behavior as the result of external forces. While we might see Nicole’s loss of income as evidence of laziness, we will likely see our own comparable loss as the result of a poor economy.  Social psychologists call this the “fundamental attribution error” – X suffers because of his innermost traits. I suffer because of things beyond my control. Overcoming cognitive errors generally takes conscious readjustment, and often the effortful search for the facts.


The mediator can re-frame the conflict by highlighting something that’s been previously ignored, as in the conversation with Fred about the convalescent hospital. The mediator pointed to the benefits to non-parties.  By emphasizing new factors, the mediator invites parties to see through a new frame. If we think about the conflict as a story, it now has a new moral.  Instead of “my property values will drop, which is bad” it is “convalescent patients will have more visitors, which is good.” Of course, if a party cares nothing about the highlighted point no change will occur.

Sometimes the emphasis has to do with parties’ needs rather than with the merits. Suppose someone says “I’ve heard you mention that you want to travel.  The offer on the table would allow that.” Now offers are seen through the aspirational frame of the opportunities they create to fulfill the desire to travel.

The most extreme change is emphasis is avoidance – agreeing to disagree and not consider some “hot-button” issue so that other issues can be resolved. Not every issue can be avoided without fundamentally changing the conflict story.   But tabling some collateral matter can help reach a solution on main points.  Of course, there is the danger of becoming too enamored with avoidance and failing to do the hard work of resolution.  Perhaps the entire conflict could be resolved with just a bit more time.  And it’s possible that the avoided issue will form the basis of a future conflict.


Mediators spend much of their time retelling the conflict story — responding to provocative language by rephrasing it in a non-offensive way.  In response to a statement that George is “greedy,” the mediator could say “Nicole, I hear you saying you are frustrated by the expense of a store that doesn’t bring in customers because it needs repair. Is that right?” Now the conflict is about the underlying issue, not about the “fighting words.” Also, making Nicole evaluate the mediator’s statement engages the cognitive part of her brain, conversely disengaging the emotional center in the amygdala.

Another way to do this is to ask parties to tell the story of the conflict from the co-disputant’s point of view, then ask the co-disputant about accuracy.  This technique engages logical thinking, tests parties’ perceptions, and can uncover unspoken issues.  Also, it can reveal potential solutions. If the storyteller is asked about resolution from an opponent’s point of view, perhaps the response will also be acceptable to her, since it came from her.


Zaffar, drawing on the work of psychiatrist Milton Erickson, suggests reframing through ‘re-contextualization,’ the process of challenging a disputant to see the conflict in light of a thought or value system he or she already endorses.  For example, ‘What do you think your Rabbi would say you should do?” or “You’re a Rotarian. They are about “Service Above Self,” aren’t they? What does that mean for your behavior in this conflict? What is the ideal solution under Rotary principles?”

Re-contextualization is particularly powerful because of our need for internal consistency.  Information or actions inconsistent with our committed beliefs causes us anxiety.  This is known as “cognitive dissonance.” We will work to eliminate the dissonance.  Whether we change our behavior or our beliefs depends on their relative commitment strength.  But either way, a reframing is likely.

To summarize, frames are conscious or unconscious stories we tell ourselves and others to help explain the world around us, including the conflicts we face.   They can include our beliefs, our needs and desires, our prejudices, our preferences and/or our fears of loss.  Our frames can manipulate others or change us.

Altering those frames means changing that conflict story without losing the basic elements:  redefining the dispute, retelling part of the tale, changing the emphasis or causing the framer to think of it in a brand new context.   Changing how the conflict story is told can lead to a happy ending – the resolution of the dispute.

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