Reframing: The Essence of Mediation


by Peter Blanciak

August 2002

Psychologists and therapists have long used a technique called reframing to assist patients with changing problem attitudes and behaviors. The idea behind reframing is “to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally well, or even better, and thereby changes its entire meaning.”[1] Further, it has been stated that “‘our experience of the world is based on categorization of the objects of our perception into classes,’ and that ‘once an object is conceptualized as the member of a given class, it is extremely difficult to see it also as belonging to another class.’ With reframing, once we see ‘alternative class memberships,’ it is difficult to go back to our previously limited view of ‘reality.’”[2] Reframing allows an idea or object to be thought of as fitting into a different category.

Psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson was a masterful user of reframing to bring about seemingly miraculous changes in his patients. Sidney Rosen tells about some of Erickson’s greatest reframes.[3] The following is an enlightening example of how Erickson used reframing.[4] He once had a client call him saying that she had passed flatus loudly in a college classroom while standing at the blackboard. She immediately ran out of the room embarrassed. This one incident led her to lock herself up in her own house becoming completely fearful of any social contact. She even had to have her groceries delivered to her apartment. She was a complete social phobic. After interviewing this woman, Erickson found out that she thought of herself as a devout Catholic. This gave Erickson enough information to commence a miraculous reframing of the woman’s worldview that resolved her problem. He told her that “[y]ou say that you are a good Catholic. Then why do you insult the Lord; why do you make a mockery of him? Because you are. You ought to be ashamed of yourself- making a mockery of God and calling yourself a good Catholic.”[5] He then told the woman that he could prove how disrespectful she was being toward God. As Erickson put it, “[I] hauled out my anatomy book, an atlas showing all the illustrations of the body. I showed her a cross-section of the rectum and anal sphincter … I said, ‘Now, man is very skillful at building things. But, can you imagine a man being sufficiently skillful to build a valve that contains solid matter, liquid matter, and air- and emits downward only the air?’ I said, ‘God did. Why don’t you respect God?’”[6] Next, he provided her with a behavioral prescription in telling her to bake some beans flavored with onions and garlic. These, he said, are called “whistleberries by the navy”.[7] She was then to dance naked around her apartment “emitting loud ones, soft ones, big ones, little ones … and enjoy God’s work.”[8] This woman overcame her social fear enough to meet someone and be married the next year.

Dr. Erickson accomplished this miraculous change of reference by reframing the woman’s situation. He used her own world-view of being a devout Catholic to force her into reinterpreting her embarrassing situation. But, what does this have to do with mediation? Mediators are supposed to aid in the settlement of conflict between at least two parties. But, mediators lack any direct power to force an agreement. They can only exercise the tools of persuasion to help disputing parties reach settlement. It is often the case that conflicting parties each believe that their own viewpoint is the correct one. The parties continuously assert their own viewpoints. How can a resolution be reached? A mediator must change this self-serving focus to a more problem-solving focus. As Burton I. Zoub puts it “in order to eliminate behavior that is unproductive and positional, the mediator is challenged to reframe and intervene.”[9] Like Erickson does in the above example, the successful mediator must reframe the disputants’ viewpoints to be amenable to settlement. He or she does this by “restat[ing] a comment or an issue in different words and phrases. In doing so, the mediator attempts to subvert the negatives and move the parties toward resolution.”[10] Zoub calls this “really the essence of what we do in mediation.”[11] Encouraging the disputants to focus on underlying interests rather than on their entrenched positions, as Fisher and Ury do, is a form of reframing.[12]

There are many ways to do reframing. Zoub mentions quite a few of these; included are: rephrasing, focusing, proposing an option, moving from abstract to specific, going behind positions, stimulating new ideas, looking to the future, dealing with emotional outbursts, preempting, creating a metaphor, offering choices, involving the quiet participant, assigning homework, being direct, using a ludicrous intervention, discussing what will happen in a court scenario, caucusing, emphasizing closure, referring to other disciplines, termination and returning to court.[13] Zoub gives examples of each of these techniques as they are used in performing a reframe. However, in this paper, I would like to focus on some of the more novel ways of reframing that mediation scholars have proposed. In some cases the mediation scholars do not specifically call what they are doing reframing, but this technique is exactly what they are doing. At other times, the scholars call their techniques something other than reframing, such as refocusing. Regardless, I will call these techniques reframing because they are much akin to what Milton Erickson did in the example I cited above. He manipulated the existing context to change a negative into a positive. I will highlight how mediation scholars have used symbols, deception, active listening, and dramatic themes to reframe disputes in order to persuade disputants into reaching an agreement.

In Symbol in Mediation, Jennifer Fisher shows how symbols can be used by mediators to reframe disputes.[14] She defines a symbol as “[r]itual, visual art, metaphor, and story all [of which] act as other than and yet the same as that which they represent.”[15] As an example, metaphors structure the very nature of and interactions in a mediation. With metaphor, “[o]ne thing is understood and experienced in terms of another. . . . By organizing reality in particular ways, selected metaphors cause acts because each contains assumptions, evaluations and points of views and so structure attitudes regarding whatever they describe and provide reasons for behaving in certain ways.”[16] Fisher shows how the metaphor adopted by a party can lead to a host of predicable attitudes and behaviors. If a party adopts the metaphor that this ‘conflict is war,’ then the parties will behave in aggressive ways to win at all costs, probably never reaching a resolution. But if the metaphor can be changed then a dynamic opportunity for resolution may be found. For instance, she says that “if a party decides, for example, that ‘being in this conflict feels like a traveler in a desert,’ the metaphor provides a host” of entailments and assumptions.[17] This may lead to the need to “find a better sense of career direction or avoiding the mirages of unproductive patterns of relating.”[18] The effect on resolving the dispute would be enormous. Another example may be that the conflict is viewed as synchronized swimming or kayaking. This would allow the notion of teamwork in achieving a goal to come to the forefront. If the mediator can successfully persuade the parties to accept this metaphor, resolution is within reach. A potentially fruitful area of research is in how a mediator can effect a change of metaphor. Perhaps, like Erickson, one can do this simply by telling a story that elicits helpful psychological associations.

Fisher also shows how rituals can be used in a similar way.[19] A simple ritual such as eating together can reframe a dispute from adversarial to cooperative. She states that “the intent is to frame the session in a larger context of connection and to invite healing powers into the process.”[20] The only limit on finding novel “symbols” capable of reframing a conflict is the depth of the mediator’s own imagination.

Robert Benjamin applies the use of (positive) deception to reframe conflicts in mediation.[21] By deception he means the use of devices that create an opportunity for the disputants’ current unproductive worldviews to be discarded so that newer and more productive frames can emerge. He states that “[d]ifficult conflicts are seldom resolved by the use of logic or reason alone.”[22] And later states, “[f]or the mediator, as for the trickster, logic is the least effective means of convincing or persuading anyone of anything.”[23] This is because the disputants will merely solidify in their contrasting positions.

Benjamin claims that the mediator must initially become in sync with each party’s worldview.[24] In other words, he or she must accept the validity of each having their own idiosyncratic worldview. He or she must also, as Erickson did with the Catholic woman, use that worldview to reframe the context. This is “tricky . . . because the mediator must be able to synchronize with each party’s construction of reality in a manner that does not appear to invalidate any other party to the dispute.”[25] Benjamin states that

[a]fter the mediator is in sync with a party’s worldview or construction of reality, then the task is to pierce the party’s operative mythology and to alter, shift, or transform the context of a dispute so that it is susceptible to resolution. The context is the framing or understanding of the dispute, how a party views what the fight is about and presents it.”[26]

The parties’ old views cannot remain intact if a resolution is to be found. He states, “they must be unsettled sufficiently to accept other alternatives.”[27] The deception involves the mediator working in a very indirect manner so as not to make rational argument but to reframe. Benjamin gives an example of reframing a dispute between parties who are actively fighting. First, he joins their worldview by complementing them “on how well they fight.”[28] He then continues by reframing the fighting into something positive. He tells them that “people who fight well can negotiate well.”[29] This technique is similar to what the deceptive trickster does in “twist[ing] their words and shift[ing] the context of the discussion” to a more productive frame.[30] He continues in stating that “[r]eframing provides a technique by which resistance can be surreptitiously bypassed.”[31] The goal of all of this is for the mediator “to reposition each of the antagonists so that the dispute is amenable to a resolution.”[32]

Another technique of reframing involves the use of active listening. Bruce Phillips argues that “[r]ather than seeing active listening as a set of tools for reproducing what is inside each person’s head, we can see how active listening plays an important role in building or sculpting meanings, ideas, insights, and solutions between people.”[33] His argument rests on the ground that communicating through active listening is not done in a neutral and non-evaluative way. By formulation, a technique where the listener reflects back thoughts and feelings without making judgments, the listener necessarily puts his or her own influence onto the meaning of the reflection. He states, “[u]navoidably, the mediator [listener], rather than being a neutral facilitator of conversations, is an active coauthor in the construction of dispute narratives.”[34] This can be merely by tonally highlighting different words or it can be by transforming the whole meaning of the words.

Phillips claims that reformulation (or reframing) through active listening occurs in three ways. First, by reflecting back words, the mediator can “select and ignore particular issues.”[35] For instance, if one party to a commercial dispute repeatedly raises the issue of timeliness of past payments by the other party, the mediator can choose to deselect this issue by reflecting back only the issue of the quality of the goods or services provided. Second, “reformulations can be used to control the communication in the session by either inviting or discouraging collaboration on meaning-making for those topics chosen.”[36] The mediator can reflect back while encouraging input via open-ended communications. In contrast, the mediator can discourage input by using closed-ended communications. Finally, he argues that “reformulations transform the meaning of the disputant’s utterances.”[37] As an example of this he shows how a wife’s comment that her husband is always at work, implying that he does not care for his children, can be reframed.[38] The mediator reflects this back saying that “So that’s what, you are really working for the future.”[39] This puts a positive transformation on the wife’s comment regarding the husband. Any reflective listening can be used to help reframe a conflict from a negative framework to a positive one, making resolution appear suddenly in the distance like a soaring lighthouse on a stormy and dark night.

Katherine Hale utilizes dramatic themes to show how a mediator can reframe a conflict.[40] She argues that people in conflict are typically in one of the problematic drama frames. These include the “tragic frame” where the one party views itself as a hero in a battle against hostile forces.[41] The other side is viewed as evil and all-powerful. She states that the hero sees the other side as having “no legitimate concerns, no valid but different point of view.”[42] Parties in mediation who are caught in the tragic frame show little willingness to resolve the dispute.

A second problematic frame is the “euphemistic frame.” In this frame the party believes that its view of the conflict is justified by a higher order such as “for God” or “for justice.”[43] This frame leads the party to hold onto the status quo. So long as either party stays entrenched in the status quo, resolution is not a likely possibility. A third problematic frame is the “debunking frame.”[44] Here the party in this frame sees the other side as wholly guided by “self-serving motives.”[45] The “debunker uses language aggressively and restrictively.”[46] This distrustful frame makes it very difficult for a resolution to arise.

The role of the mediator in Hale’s model is to reframe the story into the “comic or hopeful frame.”[47] This frame assumes that “people can change, situations can change, [and] systems can change.”[48] It is above all a hopeful frame. This frame holds that a mediator should attempt to “reframe to focus on the larger system, or the bigger picture.”[49] The mediator should promote a belief in change and self-examination. Hale states that “[a] comic frame monitors the symbols by which others define situations and bring about identification.”[50] One way the mediator can help create this frame is, as discussed earlier, by manipulating the choice of metaphors, symbols, stories or information reflected back which guide the conflict.

The role of the mediator is much like the role of the psychotherapist. Neither really possesses much power beyond that of persuading the people involved to accept the mediator’s/therapist’s frame of the problem. At the heart of this power for the mediator is not rational or logical argument. There exist rational arguments for each viewpoint. But, the mediator can wield much influence if he or she does so indirectly in order to avoid hostile confrontation. A key element here is the ability to reframe. I have highlighted several novel ways a mediator can accomplish this goal. At their most basic level each of these techniques have a common structure. That structure involves taking the framework that each participant in a conflict holds from one of negativity to one that focuses on the positive opportunities for resolution.