We all know how important active listening is when you are in the middle of conflict or are trying to facilitate a resolution to a dispute. Concentrating on what people are saying, asking good questions and paraphrasing back what you hear are all considered ‘bread-and-butter’ skills. But what extra competency can be brought into play ? What is the ‘jam’ to assist parties towards agreement ?
Reframing is a skill that can make an enormous difference.
A ‘frame’ is a cognitive shortcut that people use to make sense of the world. It is a complex mental structure of unquestioned beliefs, values and ideas that is used to simplify our understanding of the world around us and thus to infer meaning. If a part of that frame is changed – for example through self-reflection, education or reframing – then the inferred meaning may also change.
To reframe is to bring about a change in someone’s mental perspective by altering the tacit underlying viewpoint to create different meaning. It is an attempt to release the parties from a blame and counter-blame cycle, and to focus on more useful ways of viewing the conflict. It is not about over-looking or evading some negative sentiment – this needs to be included to maintain the context.
What reframing does, however, is to introduce new meaning, co-existent with the negative perspective, which shifts the mind-set towards a more constructive future.
It works for the following reasons. Our brains are continuously looking for a state of harmony among all the things we think and do. If there is an incompatibility between what we believe and what we do, a state of cognitive dissonance arises and we seek to achieve harmony once more. This can be brought about if we change something to adapt to the new situation. Smoking is a good example. The evidence suggests that smoking damages our health, so we must either throw away the cigarette (behaviour change) or start believing that smoking is mainly harmless (belief change).
In mediation, the mediator uses reframing to unsettle the parties’ cognitive harmony by introducing a differing viewpoint. Something then has to change in the parties’ perspectives, and the mediator uses future focusing and common ground identification to edge the parties towards resolution.
A simple reframe uses underlying needs as the basis for the new frame. So, a statement such as “He never listens to me” can be reframed to “You need to be heard”. More complex reframes concentrate on perceptions (what to focus on and what to ignore, differing positions from which to view the conflict), scripting (its more complex than just ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’) and the use of metaphors.
While not the easiest of skills to apply, reframing is something all mediators should master as an essential, invaluable skill.
This blog is based on an article written by Brendan in 2015: Remarkable Reframing. Journal of Mediation & Applied Conflict Analysis, 2 (2). ISSN 2009-7170. Here is the link: https://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/6257/
UK and Irish accredited workplace mediator, investigator, trainer and coach with particular expertise in the field of neutral evaluation. Brendan undertakes work in Ireland and in all parts of the UK including Northern Ireland.