Marcie Dickson is the Founder & CEO of Alterity ADR, the largest female and minority-owned national dispute resolution firm in the US.
Reframing can be as simple as telling a disappointed employee who expected a promotion, “Things aren’t always perfect, but this is an opportunity for growth.” The likely response from the employee will be further frustration, yet it is true that when we survive setbacks, we grow more resilient. In this case, the audience was not ideal for this reframe. The positive statement was too abstract. A better choice would be to point out that even though they didn’t receive the new role, this will give them more time to expand in areas that will position them for an even better promotion with higher compensation incentives. Reframing is also time-sensitive. Give the person a chance to absorb their current truth—their frame.
A conflict frame is how someone views their situation and describes their view of the situation, goal, dispute, interest or issue. There is a tendency to be both negative and emotional in these scenarios. Patterns can be part of a frame: having familiar ways of doing things, solving problems or seeing oneself in a particular role. These patterns can negatively impact and make it challenging to change an organization’s culture. To reframe, scrutinize the frame through which a conflict is viewed. Consider a different structure.
• Tones down negative, blaming or critical statements;
• Shifts the lens from negative to positive;
• Shifts from past to future;
• Improves relationships, builds mutual understanding and develops more effective communication patterns;
• Identifies the issue that needs to be resolved (this can be the start of building an agenda, but be careful not to suggest or imply a solution);
• Emphasizes common concerns or common ground; and,
• Acknowledges emotions but not as a central focus.
When discussing negotiations, William Ury defined reframing as “redirecting the other side’s attention away from positions and toward the task of identifying interests, inventing creative options, and discussing fair standards for the selection of options.”
While reframing contains the conflict, it opens each party to new ways to solve the dispute. There are some caveats:
• Remember to use your entire range of active listening skills. You must earn trust before clients allow you to reframe their statements.
• Be conservative with it. If reframing is overused, this power can feel disingenuous to the speaker.
• Reframing does not mean that you should edit out the emotional content. Even a simple “I know this is upsetting for you…” can be effective.
Most successful CEOs, managers and HR experts know how to reframe. I was once forced to part ways with a vendor who no longer aligned with our organization’s values. During our conversation, I suggested a few contacts who might be a better fit for their business, and it shifted the gravity of our discussion considerably. If someone has been hurt emotionally or financially, you must be careful not to summon butterflies and rainbows immediately, but there are ways to brighten the dark perspective.
• An objection can be an opportunity for further exploration.
• A problem or failure might inspire growth.
• A weakness is a challenge to discover a strength.
An example of the value of reframing can be found in a dispute between a condo board and a developer. The building has a number of code violations and needs repairs despite it being new construction. The condo board channels the emotions of the tenants directly toward the developer in their initial meeting. Children could fall off the balconies, the garage is a death trap, the leaks destroyed my furniture, this was our dream home, etc. The developer responds by pointing out he has outspent his budget, the tenants had inspections before their final purchase, the garage was approved by the city, an elevator was installed at great personal expense, etc.
By reframing each side’s position, a mediator can move the dispute forward while allowing both sides to be heard. The emotion and the anger should be defused as much as possible. Some useful phrasing could be:
• So, it is important to you that…
• What I understand you to say is…
• What you are concerned with is…
• What you need to see here is…
• Your goal would be to…
Potentially, these two disputants could meet in the middle with the tenants agreeing to the developer’s offer to repair and replace damaged goods. The developer would admit blame for some of the building’s issues, including the fact that his elevator is frequently out of order. The tenants would look for a way to ensure the balconies are child-proofed and discuss a special assessment to pay for the work.
Reframing is counterintuitive to the ways most people are taught to make their case. Trying to find common ground can be perceived as weak. Still, in this time of polarization over issues as varied and emotional as vaccines, academic freedom and climate change, this inability to reframe can result in paralysis. Reframing helps us see more of what is at stake, focus on our end goals and defuse tense situations. Everyone wants to be seen and heard. In a dispute, active listening and reframing the case opens excellent opportunities for increased communication and better outcomes.