Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today
<xTITLE>Reframing</xTITLE>

Reframing

by Colin Rule
July 2018

This blog post was originally published by Colin at the eDeliberation Blog

Colin Rule
perspective

One of the core skills in the mediator’s tool box is a technique called reframing. The famed psychiatrist Milton Erickson described reframing as a technique “…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.” Put more simply, reframing helps people see something from a different perspective.

For example, imagine you’re mediating a dispute between neighbors over a dog who is constantly digging up a neighbor’s garden. One neighbor (Bob) might say, “Frank, with God as my witness, if your dog comes over to my yard and digs up my tulip bulbs again — the Fosteriana Tulips I shipped over here from Europe, that I spent all weekend planting in a perfectly spaced semicircle — I will sue you for everything you’re worth.” As a mediator, you might reframe that as, “Bob, what I hear you saying is that when Frank’s dog comes over to your yard and digs up the planting that you’d worked so hard on, you get frustrated and annoyed, and you want to find a solution.” The mediator is not saying anything substantively different from what the neighbor is saying (although he or she may leave out the part about the lawsuit for now.) But by reframing the comment with an eye toward finding a resolution to the problem (e.g. fix the fence to keep the dog in its own yard, or train the dog not to dig up the tulips) the mediator can help the parties move in the right direction.

A very experienced mediator told me once that mediation is “benevolent manipulation,” and that is kind of what reframing is: it’s urging the parties toward a particular perspective that makes a mutually agreed upon solution possible. Mediators are trained to use something called positive reframing, helping the parties envision and develop mutually acceptable solutions. Once you know what reframing is, you see it everywhere.

But not all reframing is positive. Unfortunately, most of the reframing I see in the media is negative reframing. Media figures can use reframing to make their opponents look silly or insensitive. Often a more complex argument is reframed into a simpler proposition which is easily rebutted or delegitimized. Any cursory look at our media will find this technique depressingly commonplace.

For instance, consider a sensitive discussion about why there are fewer female than male computer science Ph.D. students in the United States. One person might say, “The reasons for this disparity may be a lack of role models for girls in computer science, or unavailability of effective mentorship at key phases in their education, or bias girls confront from incumbent players already in computer science. And there may be biological factors as well.” A negative reframing for this argument might be, “So you’re saying that you think boys are smarter than girls. That’s sexist.”

Actually listening to someone you disagree with is hard — it’s much easier to mis-hear them and then argue with that straw man instead. Calling the other side biased is a common strategy in doing this negative reframing. If someone makes a nuanced point on cultural differences in the workplace, and the response is to (inaccurately) frame the point as racially insensitive, then the discussion immediately runs aground. Once the discussion is framed in that way (i.e. “you are a racist”), agreement is extremely unlikely.

David Brooks, a conservative, once said about Barack Obama, “…what he’s offering is the ability to see all sides of an issue — and I disagree with him. And we’ve had many conversations, and he sees the best side of my argument and then he reflects it back.” This is the kind of positive reframing we need more of, both on the right and on the left. A knee-jerk accentuation of the most inflammatory component of a counterpart’s argument may make it easier for your side to “win,” but a deliberate attempt to understand and engage with the strongest part of your counterpart’s argument will bring us closer to true deliberative dialogue.

Utilizing positive reframing in your political conversations — e.g. demonstrating that you have really heard the core contentions of the other side, and that you are willing to engage with the strongest part of their argument — is unusual these days. But in my experience, when you do it, the response from the other side is usually surprise, gratitude, and a more open mind.

Biography


Colin Rule is Vice President for Online Dispute Resolution at Tyler Technologies. Tyler acquired Modria.com, an ODR provider Colin co-founded, in 2017. From 2003 to 2011 Colin was Director of Online Dispute Resolution for eBay and PayPal. He has worked in the dispute resolution field for more than 25 years as a mediator, trainer, and consultant. He is currently Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution at UMass-Amherst and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Gould Center for Conflict Resolution at Stanford Law School.

Colin co-founded Online Resolution, one of the first online dispute resolution (ODR) providers, in 1999 and served as its CEO (2000) and President. In 2002 Colin co-founded the Online Public Disputes Project (now eDeliberation.com) which applies ODR to multiparty, public disputes. Previously, Colin was General Manager of Mediate.com, the largest online resource for the dispute resolution field. Colin also worked for several years with the National Institute for Dispute Resolution (now ACR) in Washington, D.C. and the Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, MA.

Colin has presented and trained throughout Europe and North America for organizations including the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the Department of State, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution. He has also lectured and taught at UMass-Amherst, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Pepperdine, Southern Methodist University, and Santa Clara University.

Colin is the author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002, and The New Handshake: Online Dispute Resolution and the Future of Consumer Protection, published by the ABA in 2017. He has contributed more than 50 articles to prestigious ADR publications such as Consensus, The Fourth R, ACResolution Magazine, and Peace Review. He serves on the boards of the Consensus Building Institute and the PeaceTech Lab at the United States Institute of Peace. He holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a graduate certificate in dispute resolution from UMass-Boston, a B.A. from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997.



Email Author
Author Website

Additional articles by Colin Rule