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.