Reframing: A Conflict Resolver’s Superpower

At a recent mediation conference, I saw a T-shirt emblazoned with, “My Superpower Is Mediation, What’s Yours?” As you probably know, all superheroes have a few tricks they rely on, such as smashing bad guys, blasting stuff, and, of course, the awesome power of flight. Mediators also have a range of powers, and I believe that “reframing” is our equivalent of flying. Here is how to make it work in your conflict resolution efforts. When a speaker makes a volatile or destructive statement, you reword (or “reframe”) it to highlight the speaker’s needs and also defang the initial comment. The technique requires that you first look beyond the original wording to determine the speaker’s actual wants or needs. Next, you recast the statement in a neutral or interest-based way.

As an illustration, one of your employees might say, “Juan is out of control. All he does is spy on me all day–I don’t know how he gets any work done.” Upon hearing this statement, you would use your x-ray vision to determine the underlying want and then boomerang it back. You might say, “Is this about the importance you place on having some privacy and ensuring team productivity?” It is amazing how a simple reframe like this can redirect the entire conversation. Instead of debating whether Juan is spying and slacking off, the conversation transforms into a meaningful discussion about expectations for workspace privacy and improving productivity.

A skillful reframe will redirect the conversation from a fixation on the negative (e.g., “I don’t want this” or “I don’t like that”) to reveal what the speaker does want. Leading people into a discussion about their wants and needs is always more beneficial than allowing them to wallow in what irks them. As an added benefit, reframing helps all parties in the conflict to accept more neutral and problem-solving perspectives.

A few tips when using this power:

  • Do not assume you know the speaker’s real need. Simply test your theory by phrasing your reframe as a question.
  • If your hypothesis is incorrect, the speaker will tell you. (For example, “No, it’s not about privacy. It’s about respecting boundaries.”) This is still productive because the conversation has shifted onto a more constructive path.
  • Try not to use this technique too soon. Remember to use your full range of active listening skills. You have to earn trust before people allow you to reframe their statements.
  • Be conservative with it. This power can begin to feel disingenuous to the speaker if it is overused.
  • Reframing does not mean that you should edit out the emotional content. People feel heard when their feelings are acknowledged. You can always preface the reframe with an acknowledgment of their emotions. Even a simple “This is really upsetting for you…” can be effective.

Give it a try. What do these speakers really want?

  • “I do my part, but other people on the team aren’t pitching in and giving this project the attention it deserves.
  • “When push comes to shove, we just need to get this done and get on with things. We shouldn’t process every decision to death.
  • “Everyone else in this department is excluding me because I’m a newcomer. All of these cliques make it feel like being in school again.”

Try using the reframing technique in your resolution efforts at work. Even though you are unable to fly, your new power will still help you save a piece of the world from destruction, just like a superhero.


Christopher Sheesley

Chris Sheesley, MA and his team at In-Accord put derailed workplace relationships back on track. Leaders hire In-Accord when they recognize the need for experienced, objective facilitators to transform high-stakes or seemingly impossible internal disputes into cooperation and employee efficiency. Chris is among the most seasoned conflict management professionals in… MORE >

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