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By Brendan Schutte, the convenor of the ASM Plus workplace and employment team and a member of its Critical Thinking Team.

Reframing is considered by many mediators to be an essential technique and mindset in working with parties to facilitate resolution. Being able to consider the disagreement from more useful, and potentially more constructive viewpoints, is thought to bolster the process of lowering defensiveness and increasing motivation for a mutually acceptable outcome. But how to do this in a sufficiently subtle way that you allow the parties to discover the movement themselves, without directing or telling?

Reframing is not easy to master and new mediators can find it difficult to fully grasp. How do you meaningfully teach the art of helping another to see something that is hidden in their conflict and is not explicit and obvious?

Let me introduce you to MagicEye® – a process which embeds a three-dimensional image into a two-dimensional picture. These colourful pictures allow most people to see hidden three dimensional images by looking at two-dimensional picture patterns in a particular way. Not everyone is able to see the images, as a certain level of depth perception is needed, and few people can see the images immediately on first looking. Usually some help is needed with the technique of looking through the picture with eyes unfocused. For a full description and many examples, refer to the website: www.magiceye.com.

Here, then, is something that reflects beautifully what happens in reframing.

  1. The picture (or conflict) is being looked at in two dimensions initially.
  2. The trainer (or mediator) helps the trainees (or parties) to find the hidden, different image (or viewpoint) in the picture (or conflict).
  3. The hidden different ‘third dimension’ was there all the time in the picture (or conflict), they just could not see it.
  4. Why? Because they were focusing too hard on the two-dimensional surface (two sides of the conflict), and only when they ‘let go’ and de-focussed away from the surface are they able to see the third dimension.

Needless to say, using this in a class of trainee mediators is a bit of fun, but also contains much learning and subconscious understanding. The struggle to see the hidden image mirrors the difficulty that parties experience in seeing the conflict in a way that is different from the narratives they have each developed. When a 3D image is spotted it produces a sense of awe and excitement – gosh, this was there all the time and I couldn’t see it until now!

The trainer can assist the trainees to see the hidden image by explaining how to avoid focusing their eyes on the 2D surface and to hold the image at a certain distance away from their eyes. Trainees who have ‘seen the light’ always help others with the method of seeing and so become ‘reframers’ as well. This also fosters curiosity – a key mediator competency – as trainees rush to see what their classmates can see.

Using this ‘discovery learning’ training method, the concept of reframing becomes embedded more intensely than would happen with a tedious slide presentation, and sparks much classroom discussion and reflection.

For a fuller discussion about the art of reframing my paper “Remarkable Reframing” in the Journal of Mediation and Applied Conflict Analysis.

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