Setting the Stage for Reframing
“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.”
— Bernard Mayer, in The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution, p.139
Parties enter into conflict resolution processes with their own interpretation of the problem: what issues are in dispute, why the problem has arisen, and how best to resolve the conflict.1 The way in which a party describes or defines a conflict is known as framing. One of the first things a mediator does in the mediation process is to get the parties to explain their view of the problem. This allows the sides, as well as the mediator, to see how each is framing the conflict.2 In most cases, these initial statements will reveal very different views of the dispute. For example, opening statements tend to use adversarial language. They often place blame on the other side, attribute negative qualities to the other side’s personality or identity, and demand that the other side comply with their demands.3 Such conflicting frames spur antagonism and prevent the parties from reaching an acceptable and effective agreement.
What is Reframing?
“Framing refers to the way a conflict is described or a proposal is worded; reframing is the process of changing the way a thought is presented so that it maintains its fundamental meaning but is more likely to support resolution efforts.”4
Parties can engage in reframing on their own, but it can be extremely helpful to have a third party (mediator or facilitator) to guide the process. It becomes the mediator’s or third party’s job to restate what each party has said in a way that causes less resistance or hostility. In other words, the mediator helps disputants communicate and redefine the way they think about the dispute, in the hopes of enabling cooperation between opposing sides. The ultimate goal of reframing is to create a common definition of the problem acceptable to both parties and increase the potential for more collaborative and integrative solutions (see win-win).
The process of reframing can occur quickly if parties are receptive to it, or it may take more time if they are not. In many cases, parties are not aware of the true nature of the conflict. They know they are angry, that they have been wronged, and that they want retribution. However, they may not be able to identify the problem clearly. With the assistance of a mediator and the passing of time, the parties are given the chance to explore the nature of the conflict. Through this process they will hopefully begin to understand the underlying causes of the conflict.5 Once parties begin to truly understand each other’s point of view, it makes it easier for them to think about solutions that will work for both sides.
Reframing In Intractable Conflicts
While reframing is often all that is needed to find a win-win solution in many conflicts, in the intractable conflicts that are the subject of this website, reframing is helpful, but not sufficient. Often in these conflicts, disputants need not only to identify mutual interests, but also need to examine underlying needs. When the parties understand the underlying causes of the conflict in terms of interest and needs, it becomes more possible to begin thinking in terms of innovative solutions, or at least possible conflict management strategies that allow the conflict to be pursued, but in less destructive ways.
How Much Assistance?
Mediators and facilitators vary in the degree of direction they provide to parties in the reframing process. Some will simply ask probing questions and then sit back and let the parties work out the issues themselves. Asking “deeply honest” or challenging questions that force the parties to reveal their true feelings can be very effective at facilitating communication (see empathic listening). For example, the mediator may ask, “What did he do that you disliked?” “What would you like for him to have done?” “What would you like him to do now?” “How should he start?” “What should he say?” “How would you respond if he did?”6 On the other hand, the mediator may take a more directive role and specifically suggest new ways of defining the problem that he/she thinks will be more constructive. Sometimes the mediators try to reframe issues that are unresolvable in a way that diverts attention away from that type of issue and toward aspects of the dispute that can be resolved.7
How a mediator approaches the reframing process necessarily depends heavily on the type of conflict at hand. Generally speaking, it is easier to help reframe interest disputes (see integrative/interest-based bargaining) than reframing value conflicts over issues such as guilt, rights, or facts (see intolerable moral differences).8 As noted above, the goal of reframing is to develop a mutually acceptable definition of the problem.
Therefore, when redefining interest-related issues, it is crucial to include all essential interests of both sides in the new definition. A common way mediators accomplish this is to shift the level of generality or specificity of the issue.9 For example, the mediator may expand the number of issues to be considered rather than just sticking with the parties’ narrow conception of the problem. By listening carefully to the parties’ position statements, mediators seek to identify the underlying interests of those positions. By shifting from specific interests, such as a pay increase, to more general interests such as overall employment benefits, mediators can help generate more feasible options for settlement.10
Value conflicts, on the other hand, are normally more difficult to reframe. These conflicts have a tendency to polarize the disputants. When parties possess strictly opposed value-based viewpoints there are a few techniques a mediator can use to reframe the issues so they will be more ripe for resolution. The first technique is to translate values into interests. For example, if there is a dispute between people about the value of wilderness as opposed to jobs, it would be very hard to resolve which is more important. The question always develops: for whom? Wilderness will be more important for some; jobs for others. But if the particular dispute is reframed in terms of interests: some groups want a particular piece of land preserved as wilderness, and others want jobs, there might be a way to provide jobs serving people going into or coming out of the wilderness. Or development might be allowed to take place somewhere else in exchange for a wilderness designation on the contested land. By trading off interests, not values, agreement can sometimes be reached.
A second strategy for dealing with value conflicts is to identify overarching, superordinate goals that all parties can accept and cooperatively work toward.11 In the abortion controversy in the United States, for example, the two sides are probably never going to agree about whether abortion is moral or not. But they can agree on the idea that women should be helped to avoid having unwanted babies. They can then work together to try to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to provide options to abortion (such as adoption) for women who still are faced with that dilemma.
People often explain their circumstances, emotions, and ideas through the use of metaphors, analogies, proverbs and other imagery. Thus, another approach to reframing is using new metaphors to describe the situation. Using metaphors that both parties relate to can help open up communication and increase understanding of the conflict and possibilities for resolution.12 For example, some people who were writing essays for this system did not understand why they could not write whatever they wanted. Their metaphor for this system was an edited book, and in most edited books, the chapters are on topics of the authors’ choice (or at least they have a fair amount of leeway.) But when we explained that another way to think of this system was as a lego building block kit, and that they were writing a piece that would fit together with other pieces around it to form a whole, they better understood their role in the bigger project.
The final technique for value conflict reframing is avoidance. This means the mediator either avoids identifying or responding to the value difference(s) directly, or reframes them so the parties agree to disagree on certain points.13
There are a few final points about reframing to keep in mind. Much of the reframing process is “about changing the verbal presentation of an idea, concern, proposal, or question so that the party’s essential interest is still expressed but unproductive language, emotion, position taking, and accusations are removed.”14 Therefore, it is important that mediators are careful with the language they use to reframe problems.
Value-laden language and strong positions or demands should be reformulated. The challenge is to convert polarizing language into neutral terms, removing bias and judgment, without diluting the intensity of the message or favoring either side.15 For example, Mr. Smith says, “This obnoxious jerk has not paid his rent in 3 months!” The mediator translates that into, “You are upset that you have not received your monthly rent payment from Mr. Williams for the last three months.”
Lastly, parties must be explicit about the issues that divide them in order for the mediator to successfully help reframe the problem in terms that facilitate agreement. Often there is a cycle of exchanges between the parties and the mediator. As parties become more comfortable with the conflict resolution process they become more explicit about their issues.16Ultimately, the acceptance of the reframing of an issue “is a result of timing and the psychological readiness of the parties to accept the definition of the situation.”17