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Context is King: A Practical Guide to Reframing in Mediation

Context is King: A Practical Guide to Reframing in Mediation

“You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.’ — Albert Einstein

“The art of reframing is to maintain the conflict in all its richness but to help people look at it in a more open-minded and hopeful way.” — Bernard Mayer

Twenty-six miles away from the nearest town of Novo Progresso, Francinaldo Rocha of the Munduruku Indians gathers up the last of his meager catch before heading out of the dense Amazonian forest towards home. Fish and other game are hard to come by in this part of Brazil. Yet more worrisome to Francinaldo are fears that loggers close to his village will continue illegal cutting of trees used to make valuable canoes for his tribe. The loggers are part of a sustained effort by the Brazilian government to establish a paved road through a wide swath of lush rainforest in the heart of South America. “The forest gives us our life” says Francinaldo, “The asphalt is really just for the rich”. His sentiment is shared by affected tribes as well as environmental groups operating in Brazil. [1]

Nearby, burly truckers share cups of sweet coffee as they wait for a front-end loader to tow their rigs through a half-mile stretch of waist-deep mud. Help can take days to arrive on BR163, one of Brazil’s worst national highways. But there’s money to be had hauling goods in these parts, and so the drivers continue, spurred by promises of profit. These promises of profit have also compelled the government, encouraged by regional and international corporations, to embark on a massive paving project. This conversion of BR163 into a modern two-lane toll highway of 1,100 miles (the distance between Philadelphia and Miami) is exactly what has native tribes and environmental groups worried. While admitting that modernization is inevitable, they point out that the massive project will lead to increased human migration into the Amazonian rainforest and resultant deforestation and devastation of the Native Brazilian way of life.

Although the paving won’t begin until later this year, parties from both sides admit that increased migration and deforestation may lead to acts of violence and vociferous land struggles. The stage is thus set for a conflict. Notably, both parties acknowledge the other side’s problems and needs – the environmental groups and Indians realize that progress is inevitable, while the developers realize that violence, deforestation and land struggles are bound to ensue. However, whereas the Indians see these acts as an endgame for their community, the developers, truckers and government view them as necessary yet temporary “growing pains” which come with any economic expansion into previously undisturbed regions.

In mediation parlance, these two party’s differing views on the same issue are seen as “frames”. Mediation of a conflict moves forward, in part, through the mediator’s efforts in reframing each party’s internal characterization of the dispute. Reframing is essentially a process of clarification, where unessential and superfluous issues are whittled away to reveal the core of each party’s respective contention. Often, parties are at loggerheads because they entrench themselves in a set view of the dispute based on their visceral experiences, their past beliefs and ideologies and their current socio-economic status. Effective reframing of a dispute may be necessary to get the parties to realize what the dispute is really about, and to move the parties forward towards resolution.

This paper discusses the practical uses and methodologies of reframing. The first part of the paper looks at the varying definitions of reframing while the second links these definitions to the purposes of reframing. The third part outlines the many ways a mediator can reframe disputes. The last part looks at the advantages of reframing as well as the pitfalls associated with the technique.

Defining Reframing

Reframing is the art and science of employing words and actions in order to alter a person’s perspective of a specific situation with the intention of initiating a change in behavior. The art is in accomplishing the process without manipulating the facts of the situation, the science is doing so at the right time and with the correct results.

At a fundamental level, the modulation of conflict involves a process of “rephrasing” — some kind of reframing of a discourse. [2]Reframing also signifies a change in mental constructs about a situation, or of perceptions, perspectives, or points of view. A skillful mediator will accomplish a change in disputants’ mindsets without appearing to force a value choice. [3]

This technique isn’t new to the human experience. For instance, when dealing with an internal conflict, humans often reframe issues automatically (often with a frame which is subjectively favorable to the reframer). Thus, when faced with the loss of a loved one, individuals often think, “I am sure she wouldn’t have wanted me to cry or be sad if she were here”. This is a simplistic and unassuming reframing of an issue. The new frame allows a person to continue life while not feeling as if they have betrayed their loved one by “moving on”. Realistically, the reframer has no idea what their loved one would or wouldn’t have wanted – many historical figures built monuments to themselves precisely so they would be remembered, even in death.

Recently, scientists have studied and consciously applied reframing in specific situations. For instance, psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson used reframing to bring about miraculous changes in patient behavior. [4] Erickson once had a patient, a teacher who continued passing flatus loudly in her classroom and consequently became so fearful of social contact that she locked herself up in her room. [5] During the course of his interview he learned that his patient was a devout Catholic. Armed with this information Erickson first provided a new frame, he told her,

“[y]ou say that you are a good Catholic. Then why do you insult the Lord; why do you make a mockery of him? You ought to be ashamed of yourself – making a mockery of God and calling yourself a good Catholic.” [6]

Second, as Erickson put it, “[I] hauled out my anatomy book, an atlas showing all the illustrations of the body. I showed her a cross-section of the rectum and anal sphincter … I said, ‘Now, man is very skillful at building things. But, can you imagine a man being sufficiently skillful to build a valve that contains solid matter, liquid matter, and air- and emits downward only the air?’ I said, ‘God did. Why don’t you respect God?’” [7]

Finally, Erickson provided his patient a behavioral prescription. He ordered her to eat some baked beans flavored by garlic and onions (a great stimulant for the colon) and then dance around her apartment naked, “emitting loud ones, soft ones, big ones, little ones … and enjoy God’s work.” [8] The woman overcame her social anxiety enough to meet and marry someone the next year. Erickson successfully changed his patient’s entire frame of reference by using her intimately held (and socially accepted) religious beliefs as a means of validating her embarrassment, thus turning this embarrassment into socially acceptable behavior.

The Purposes of Reframing

Erickson’s techniques are an example of “Reframing by Recontextualization”. This is when facts are portrayed within a differing yet previously held factual context such as religious beliefs, past experiences or socio-economic status. Reframing by recontextualizing can be analogized to shining a spotlight on a part of the stage which was previously dark. The now illuminated object changes the context of the entire scene. For instance, in our little vignette, the Indians such as Francinaldo are very concerned about the lack of food and hunting stock. A successful reframing of the issue would emphasize that the speedy transportation of commercial goods through the highway would also provide a significant and reliable source of food for the locals.

Another purpose of reframing is to persuade. The mediator looking to persuade completely steps out from the present facts and circumstances. “He or she … assist[‘s] the disputants to see … future possibilities, in a way which allows previously indiscernible creative solutions to become obvious and inevitable. In this sense, the mediator’s role in effecting changes in disputants’ mindframes involves a form of persuasion.” [9]

Reframing Methods

There are an incalculable number of ways to reframe a dispute. However, a few oft-used methods are predictably successful. For instance, mediators often urge the parties to “agree to disagree”. For example, in the author’s opinion, people who believe women are unsuited for the priesthood or people who believe homosexuality is evil are unlikely to be persuaded to change their beliefs after mediation. However, if these groups are able to reach a point where they can realize that their views are fundamentally different, but not necessarily wrong, they may be able to focus on basic shared values which will help them shift from seeking a major dispute-wide agreement to focusing on smaller, easily resolvable issues. For instance, both the Indians as well as the developers do not differ on whether the highway should be built, but rather on how it should be developed. If both parties agree to disagree on the methodology of future development, then they can focus on fundamental shared ideals such as eliminating crime and land disputes after the highway has been built.

Unfortunately “agreeing to disagree”, though a successful method of reframing, is one which ignores certain issues. The method implicitly assigns higher value to future problems, rather than immediate or present ones.

An effective way to overcome this problem is to reframe disputes by encouraging a shift from values to interests. [10] People are generally amenable to a change in their interests rather than closely-held values. While efforts to reconcile value conflicts are likely to be counterproductive, efforts to identify and clarify these conflicts can be helpful. For instance, Francinaldo’s tribe and the developers can agree that both values, economic development and environmental protection, are equally important. Thereafter, if both reframe the dispute into an interest conflict and work to minimize the risk of adverse impacts rather than asking which value is more important, both parties may be able to structure satisfactory solutions.

Aside from these somewhat ethereal techniques good mediators can employ the use of a few more practical reframing methods. For instance, Jennifer Fisher advocates the use of rituals and symbols as reframing methodologies. [11] Eating together at the same table, she notes, is often enough to shift an adversarial dispute to a cooperative one. According to Fisher, if a party, say the developers in our case adopt a view that “conflict is war” they will behave aggressively, be less willing to give up on their positions and probably never reach a resolution. Fisher says that “if a party decides, for example, that ‘being in this conflict feels like a traveler in the desert,’ the metaphor provides a host” of entailments and assumptions. [12] If the mediator can successfully persuade the parties to accept this metaphor, resolution is within the reach.

On the other hand, Bruce Phillips espouses “active” listening, another popular technique often employed by mediators. Active listening contemplates that the mediator will not only listen, but reflect back thoughts and feelings without making judgments. Phillips believes that by engaging in this process the mediator necessarily imbues his or her own meaning of the dispute into the reflected words via change of tone, inflection, or speed of speech. [13] Moreover through the process of reflection the mediator can reframe the dispute by selecting or ignoring certain issues.

Reframing Pitfalls

Though necessary for dispute resolution, the process of reframing is fraught with the potential for error-making. Reframing a dispute involves receiving information, processing and reformulating it in an acceptable way and relaying this information back to the parties. The risk of confabulation at each of these points is great. For instance, the mediator should strive to reformulate value-laden language and strong positions. The challenge is to convert polarizing language into neutral terms, removing bias or judgment, without diluting the intensity of the message or favoring either side. [14] Eliminating emotionally charged terms from the dispute allows the parties to focus on elements of the dispute rather than the emotions generated by the dispute. Good reframing therefore depends on whether the mediator has understood the “frames” of each of the disputants correctly. Reframing a conflict improperly understood destroys the mediator’s credibility, corrupting the stem of a tree that will bear poisoned fruit later in the mediation.

Another question to ask is when reframing should begin? Ultimately the acceptance of the mediator’s proffered “rephrasing” of an issue, “is a result of timing and the psychological readiness of the parties to accept the definition of the situation.” [15]But is reframing really about timing, psychological readiness or both? Will the parties only reframe the issues when they are ready? Does it take a certain amount of time for them to accept a neutral or overarching view of the problem? If so, is reframing really a necessary conscious action which should be engaged in by the mediator from the outset of the mediation?

In the author’s opinion in order for the mediator to understand the frames of the disputants correctly, it may be prudent to let them exhaust their contentions as much as possible before any substantial reframing of the issues takes place. At the outset of the mediation it may be wiser instead to engage in Fisher’s ritual-based mediation, e.g. encourage both disputants to share a meal at the same table.

There is also the pressing problem of the mediator’s own frames. As human beings mediators also carry with them their own world views and ways of prioritizing information. These “worldmaking stories” often clash with each other over the course of a dispute.

Worldmaking stories are: “narratives that are told and retold by many people; they become symbolic cores around which organizations, communities, and civilizations shape their collective lives. Each worldmaking story expresses the authoritative claims of the community that validates it, and every worldmaking story contains implicit, if not explicit, patterns of compulsions and permissions to act in certain ways and prohibitions against acting in other ways” [16]

There is a significant risk that a mediator will favor a certain method of thinking, a worldmaking story, purely because he or she believes in one over another. By emphasizing one problem based solution over another the mediator is not only reframing the debate but actually manipulating the outcome. This outcome-manipulation clashes with the mediator’s given responsibility as a neutral party in the mediation.

For instance, collaborative planning processes used to address environmental and indigenous conflicts such as the one with Francinaldo and Munduruku Indians often employ a frame centered around stakeholders and interest-based parties. This mindset recognizes actors who hold discrete and instrumental interests and has a difficult time accommodating parties who value something more insubstantial such claims about sacred spaces or the world as a sacred living being. [17] If the mediator fails to make space for this second mindset by dually reframing the dispute through the mindset of both parties, the Munduruku Indians in our case study may find it difficult to speak their truth into the negotiation arena; they may have to twist what they want to say to make it fit into a the mediator’s mindset.

These potential pitfalls raise the question; when does rephrasing turn from reframing a dispute to redirecting it? The process of “re”framing implies a redo, a remake – a change in the status quo. However as noted, the process of reframing contemplates that this change will be from one mindset a party has to another previously existing, ,yet subconscious or hidden mindset. Yet what are the risks that by encouraging one point of view and discouraging another, the mediator isn’t reformulating the course of the dispute by his or her own biases and preferences?

Ultimately it is naive to assume that the mediator’s own views wont impact the mediation. Nonetheless, mediators can employ several techniques to ensure a modicum of objectivity. For instance, while reframing, a good mediator will reframe the dispute for both parties. For instance, while showing Francinaldo how the highway can alleviate his subsistence concerns, a mediator must also explain to the developers how undue devastation of the surrounding rainforest may increase highway maintenance costs due to erosion and consequent flooding.

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant” noted Justice Lewis Brandeis. Likewise, mediators can also lessen the impact of their biases by “shining light” on any strong views they hold by informing the parties in advance. By putting the parties on notice the mediator hands over some implicit policing powers to the disputants without giving away control of the mediation. [18] This policy has the additional advantage of freeing the mediator from second-guessing their reframing strategies during the course of mediation.

Nearby in the town of Novo Progresso, trucker Honorato Gomes da Silva, waits for a tow barefoot, his boots in his rig so they don’t get sucked into mud that acts like quicksand with all kinds of shoes. “I’ve been waiting for the pavement for 20 years,” he says, “We’re used to sleeping in the forest but that will be a thing of the past when the pavement comes.” How different are Silva’s needs from Francinaldo and his tribe? Don’t both men want future prosperity for themselves and their families, a reliable income, the promise of good health? It may be that both these men are closer in their overarching wants than they are separate. Good mediators should reframe the impending dispute to emphasize commonalties and use fostered understanding to overcome values which divide both parties. And they can start by pointing out that the town of Novo Progresso after all, means New Progress in English.

End Notes

1This vignette is adapted from an actual dispute. See (last visited April 8, 2006) and Road cuts deep into Brazil’s Amazon (last visited April 8, 2006).

2 See generally Lynn Mather & Barbara Yngvesson, Language, Audience, and the Transformation of Disputes, LAW & SOC’Y REV. 775 (1981)

3 See Robin Pinkley, Dimensions of Conflict Frame: Disputant Interpretations of Conflict, J. APPLIED PSYCHOL. 117-26 (1990).

4 Comparisons citing Milton Erickson’s efforts are adapted from and are a continuation of the pioneering work of Peter Blanciak on reframing in mediation. See Reframing: The Essence of Mediation, (

5 Sidney Rosen, My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson 143 (W. W. Norton & Company) (1982), quoting Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland & Richard Fisch, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (1974). at 151-152.

6 Id. at 151.

7 Id.

8 Id. at 152.

9 See id.; Dimensions of Conflict Frame, J. APPLIED PSYCHOL. 117-26 (1990).

10 See generally, Roger Fisher & William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (Penguin (Non-Classics); 2nd/Rep edition) (1991).

11 Jennifer Fisher, Symbol in Mediation, MEDIATION QUARTERLY, 2000, 18(1) 87-107. See also, Reframing: The Essence of Mediation, Peter Blanciak (

12 Id.

13 Bruce Phillips, Reformulating Dispute Narratives Through Active Listening, MEDIATION QUARTERLY, 1999, 17(2), 161-180 at 179. See also, Reframing: The Essence of Mediation, Peter Blanciak (

14 For example, Mr. Smith says, “This obnoxious jerk has not paid his rent in 3 months!” The mediator translates that into, “You are upset that you have not received your monthly rent payment from Mr. Williams for the last three months.”

15 Christopher Moore, The Mediation Process 222-223 (Jossey-Bass Publishers) (1996).

16 Marcia Caton Campbell & Jayne Seminare Docherty, Symposium: What’s in a Frame? (That Which we Call a Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet), 87 MARQ. L. REV. 769, 773 (2004).

17 The concept of the world as a sacred living being, i.e “Gaia” is an almost universal concept in numerous indigenous tribes in the Americas.

18 Many mediators already follow this practice during the intake or convening stage of the mediation. Disclosing personal predispositions which may bias the mediation may nip a problem in the bud before it appears in later mediation.


Ehsan Zaffar

Ehsan Zaffar as an attorney specializing in civil rights, national security and emergency management issues. He has tackled civil rights issues in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake and flooding in Pakistan, the Haiti earthquake and most recently during the BP oil spill. Ehsan now serves as an advisor… MORE >

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