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Marcie Dickson is the founder and CEO of alternative ADRthe largest national dispute resolution company owned by women and minorities in the US.

Reframing can be as simple as telling a disappointed employee expecting a promotion, “It doesn’t always go perfectly, but this is an opportunity to grow.” The likely response from the employee will be further frustration, but it is true that when we survive adversity, we become 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 while they didn’t get the new role, it will give them more time to expand in areas that will position them for even better promotion with higher reward incentives. Reframing is also time sensitive. Give the person a chance to take in their current truth – their frame.

A conflict frame is how a person looks at his situation and describes his view of the situation, the goal, the dispute, the interest or the 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 themselves in a particular role. These patterns can negatively impact and make it challenging to change an organization’s culture. To reframe, you must examine the frame through which a conflict is viewed. Consider another structure.

Proper reframing:

• Attenuate negative, accusatory 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 problem to be solved (this can be the beginning of an agenda, but be careful not to suggest or suggest a solution);

• Emphasizes common concerns or common grounds; and,

• Recognizes emotions, but not as a central point.

When discussing negotiations, William Uryu . said defined reframing as “diverting the other side’s attention from positions and to the task of identifying interests, coming up with creative options, and discussing fair standards for option selection.”

While reframing contains the conflict, it opens up each side to new ways to resolve the dispute. There are some caveats:

• Remember to use all of your active listening skills. You need to gain trust before customers allow you to rephrase their statements.

• Be conservative with it. If reframing is used too much, this force can feel unfair to the speaker.

• Reframing does not mean getting rid of 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 supplier who no longer aligned with our organization’s values. During our conversation, I suggested a few contacts that might be a better fit for their company, and it changed the seriousness of our discussion significantly. If someone is hurt emotionally or financially, be careful not to immediately conjure up butterflies and rainbows, but there are ways to brighten up the dark perspective.

• An objection can be a reason for further investigation.

• A problem or failure can stimulate 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 some code violations and needs to be repaired, despite being new construction. The condo board channels the tenants’ emotions directly to the developer during their first meeting. Kids can fall from 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 that he has exceeded his budget, the tenants have had inspections before their final purchase, the garage was approved by the city, an elevator was installed at a high personal cost, etc.

By reviewing the position of both parties, a mediator can bring the dispute forward while allowing both parties to be heard. The emotion and anger must be neutralized as much as possible. A useful formulation could be:

• So it’s important to you that…

• What I understand you are saying is…

• What you are concerned with is…

• What you need to see here is…

• Your goal would be to…

Possibly, these two disputants could meet in the middle with the tenants who agree to the developer’s offer to repair and replace damaged goods. The developer is said to blame a number of problems in the building, including the fact that its elevator is often out of order. The tenants would look for a way to ensure the balconies are child-proof and discuss a special assessment to pay for the work.

Reframing is counterintuitive to the way most people are taught to defend their case. Trying to find common ground can be perceived as weak. Yet in this age of polarization on issues as varied and emotional as vaccines, academic freedom and climate change, this inability to reframe can lead to paralysis. Reframing helps us see more of what’s at stake, focus on our ultimate goals, and defuse tense situations. Everyone wants to be seen and heard. In a dispute, active listening and reframing opens up excellent opportunities for greater communication and better results.


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