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Reframing: The Essence of Mediation

Psychologists and therapists
have long used a technique called reframing to assist patients with changing
problem attitudes and behaviors. The
idea behind reframing is “to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or
viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in
another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally
well, or even better, and thereby changes its entire meaning.”[1] Further, it has been stated that “‘our
experience of the world is based on categorization of the objects of our
perception into classes,’ and that ‘once an object is conceptualized as the
member of a given class, it is extremely difficult to see it also as belonging
to another class.’ With reframing, once
we see ‘alternative class memberships,’ it is difficult to go back to our
previously limited view of ‘reality.’”[2] Reframing allows an idea or object to be
thought of as fitting into a different category.

Psychiatrist Milton H.
Erickson was a masterful user of reframing to bring about seemingly miraculous
changes in his patients. Sidney Rosen
tells about some of Erickson’s greatest reframes.[3] The following is an enlightening example of
how Erickson used reframing.[4] He once had a client call him saying that
she had passed flatus loudly in a college classroom while standing at the
blackboard. She immediately ran out of
the room embarrassed. This one incident
led her to lock herself up in her own house becoming completely fearful of any
social contact. She even had to have
her groceries delivered to her apartment.
She was a complete social phobic.
After interviewing this woman, Erickson found out that she thought of
herself as a devout Catholic. This gave
Erickson enough information to commence a miraculous reframing of the woman’s
worldview that resolved her problem. He
told her that “[y]ou say that you are a good Catholic. Then why do you insult the Lord; why do you
make a mockery of him? Because you are. You ought to be ashamed of yourself- making
a mockery of God and calling yourself a good Catholic.”[5] He then told the woman that he could prove
how disrespectful she was being toward God.
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?’”[6] Next, he provided her with a behavioral
prescription in telling her to bake some beans flavored with onions and garlic.
These, he said, are called “whistleberries by the navy”.[7] She was then to dance naked around her
apartment “emitting loud ones, soft ones, big ones, little ones … and enjoy
God’s work.”[8] This woman overcame her social fear enough
to meet someone and be married the next year.

Dr. Erickson accomplished
this miraculous change of reference by reframing the woman’s situation. He used her own world-view of being a devout
Catholic to force her into reinterpreting her embarrassing situation. But, what does this have to do with
mediation? Mediators are supposed to
aid in the settlement of conflict between at least two parties. But, mediators lack any direct power to
force an agreement. They can only
exercise the tools of persuasion to help disputing parties reach settlement. It is often the case that conflicting
parties each believe that their own viewpoint is the correct one. The parties continuously assert their own
viewpoints. How can a resolution be
reached? A mediator must change this
self-serving focus to a more problem-solving focus. As Burton I. Zoub puts it “in order to eliminate behavior that is
unproductive and positional, the mediator is challenged to reframe and
intervene.”[9] Like Erickson does in the above example, the
successful mediator must reframe the disputants’ viewpoints to be amenable to
settlement. He or she does this by
“restat[ing] a comment or an issue in different words and phrases. In doing so, the mediator attempts to
subvert the negatives and move the parties toward resolution.”[10] Zoub calls this “really the essence of what
we do in mediation.”[11] Encouraging the disputants to focus on
underlying interests rather than on their entrenched positions, as Fisher and
Ury do, is a form of reframing.[12]

There are many ways to do reframing. Zoub mentions quite a few of these; included
are: rephrasing, focusing, proposing an
option, moving from abstract to specific, going behind positions, stimulating
new ideas, looking to the future, dealing with emotional outbursts, preempting,
creating a metaphor, offering choices, involving the quiet participant,
assigning homework, being direct, using a ludicrous intervention, discussing
what will happen in a court scenario, caucusing, emphasizing closure, referring
to other disciplines, termination and returning to court.[13] Zoub gives examples of each of these
techniques as they are used in performing a reframe. However, in this paper, I would like to focus on some of the more
novel ways of reframing that mediation scholars have proposed. In some cases the mediation scholars do not
specifically call what they are doing reframing, but this technique is exactly
what they are doing. At other times,
the scholars call their techniques something other than reframing, such as refocusing. Regardless, I will call these techniques
reframing because they are much akin to what Milton Erickson did in the example
I cited above. He manipulated the
existing context to change a negative into a positive. I will highlight how mediation scholars have
used symbols, deception, active listening, and dramatic themes to reframe
disputes in order to persuade disputants into reaching an agreement.

In Symbol in Mediation, Jennifer Fisher shows how
symbols can be used by mediators to reframe disputes.[14] She defines a symbol as “[r]itual, visual
art, metaphor, and story all [of which] act as other than and yet the same as
that which they represent.”[15] As an example, metaphors structure the very
nature of and interactions in a mediation.
With metaphor, “[o]ne thing is understood and experienced in terms of
another. . . . By organizing reality in particular ways, selected metaphors
cause acts because each contains assumptions, evaluations and points of views
and so structure attitudes regarding whatever they describe and provide reasons
for behaving in certain ways.”[16] Fisher shows how the metaphor adopted by a
party can lead to a host of predicable attitudes and behaviors. If a party adopts the metaphor that this
‘conflict is war,’ then the parties will behave in aggressive ways to win at
all costs, probably never reaching a resolution. But if the metaphor can be changed then a dynamic opportunity for
resolution may be found. For instance, she says that “if a party decides, for
example, that ‘being in this conflict feels like a traveler in a desert,’ the
metaphor provides a host” of entailments and assumptions.[17] This may lead to the need to “find a better
sense of career direction or avoiding the mirages of unproductive patterns of
relating.”[18] The effect on resolving the dispute would be
enormous. Another example may be that
the conflict is viewed as synchronized swimming or kayaking. This would allow the notion of teamwork in
achieving a goal to come to the forefront.
If the mediator can successfully persuade the parties to accept this metaphor,
resolution is within reach. A
potentially fruitful area of research is in how a mediator can effect a change
of metaphor. Perhaps, like Erickson,
one can do this simply by telling a story that elicits helpful
psychological associations.

Fisher also shows
how rituals can be used in a similar way.[19] A simple ritual such as eating together can
reframe a dispute from adversarial to cooperative. She states that “the intent is to frame the session in a larger
context of connection and to invite healing powers into the process.”[20] The only limit on finding novel “symbols”
capable of reframing a conflict is the depth of the mediator’s own imagination.

Robert Benjamin applies the use of (positive) deception
to reframe conflicts in mediation.[21] By deception he means the use of devices
that create an opportunity for the disputants’ current unproductive worldviews
to be discarded so that newer and more productive frames can emerge. He states that “[d]ifficult conflicts are
seldom resolved by the use of logic or reason alone.”[22] And later states, “[f]or the mediator, as
for the trickster, logic is the least effective means of convincing or
persuading anyone of anything.”[23] This is because the disputants will merely
solidify in their contrasting positions.

Benjamin claims that the
mediator must initially become in sync with each party’s worldview.[24] In other words, he or she must accept the
validity of each having their own idiosyncratic worldview. He or she must also, as Erickson did with
the Catholic woman, use that worldview to reframe the context. This is “tricky . . . because the mediator
must be able to synchronize with each party’s construction of reality in a
manner that does not appear to invalidate any other party to the dispute.”[25] Benjamin states that

[a]fter the mediator is in
sync with a party’s worldview or construction of reality, then the task is to
pierce the party’s operative mythology and to alter, shift, or transform the
context of a dispute so that it is susceptible to resolution. The context is the framing or understanding
of the dispute, how a party views what the fight is about and presents it.”[26]

The parties’ old views
cannot remain intact if a resolution is to be found. He states, “they must be unsettled sufficiently to accept other
alternatives.”[27] The deception involves the mediator working
in a very indirect manner so as not to make rational argument but to
reframe. Benjamin gives an example of
reframing a dispute between parties who are actively fighting. First, he joins their worldview by
complementing them “on how well they fight.”[28] He then continues by reframing the fighting
into something positive. He tells them
that “people who fight well can negotiate well.”[29] This technique is similar to what the
deceptive trickster does in “twist[ing] their words and shift[ing] the context
of the discussion” to a more productive frame.[30] He continues in stating that “[r]eframing
provides a technique by which resistance can be surreptitiously bypassed.”[31] The goal of all of this is for the mediator
“to reposition each of the antagonists so that the dispute is amenable to a

Another technique of reframing involves the use of active
listening. Bruce Phillips argues that
“[r]ather than seeing active listening as a set of tools for reproducing what
is inside each person’s head, we can see how active listening plays an
important role in building or sculpting meanings, ideas, insights, and
solutions between people.”[33] His argument rests on the ground that
communicating through active listening is not done in a neutral and
non-evaluative way. By formulation, a
technique where the listener reflects back thoughts and feelings without making
judgments, the listener necessarily puts his or her own influence onto the
meaning of the reflection. He states,
“[u]navoidably, the mediator [listener], rather than being a neutral
facilitator of conversations, is an active coauthor in the construction of
dispute narratives.”[34] This can be merely by tonally highlighting
different words or it can be by transforming the whole meaning of the

Phillips claims that
reformulation (or reframing) through active listening occurs in three
ways. First, by reflecting back words,
the mediator can “select and ignore particular issues.”[35] For instance, if one party to a commercial
dispute repeatedly raises the issue of timeliness of past payments by the other
party, the mediator can choose to deselect this issue by reflecting back only
the issue of the quality of the goods or services provided. Second, “reformulations can be used to
control the communication in the session by either inviting or discouraging
collaboration on meaning-making for those topics chosen.”[36] The mediator can reflect back while
encouraging input via open-ended communications. In contrast, the mediator can discourage input by using
closed-ended communications. Finally,
he argues that “reformulations transform the meaning of the disputant’s
utterances.”[37] As an example of this he shows how a wife’s
comment that her husband is always at work, implying that he does not care for
his children, can be reframed.[38] The mediator reflects this back saying that
“So that’s what, you are really working for the future.”[39] This puts a positive transformation on the
wife’s comment regarding the husband.
Any reflective listening can be used to help reframe a conflict from a
negative framework to a positive one, making resolution appear suddenly in the
distance like a soaring lighthouse on a stormy and dark night.

Katherine Hale utilizes
dramatic themes to show how a mediator can reframe a conflict.[40] She argues that people in conflict are
typically in one of the problematic drama frames. These include the “tragic frame” where the one party views itself
as a hero in a battle against hostile forces.[41] The other side is viewed as evil and
all-powerful. She states that the hero
sees the other side as having “no legitimate concerns, no valid but different
point of view.”[42] Parties in mediation who are caught in the
tragic frame show little willingness to resolve the dispute.

A second problematic frame
is the “euphemistic frame.” In this
frame the party believes that its view of the conflict is justified by a higher
order such as “for God” or “for justice.”[43] This frame leads the party to hold onto the
status quo. So long as either party
stays entrenched in the status quo, resolution is not a likely
possibility. A third problematic frame
is the “debunking frame.”[44] Here the party in this frame sees the other
side as wholly guided by “self-serving motives.”[45] The “debunker uses language aggressively and
restrictively.”[46] This distrustful frame makes it very
difficult for a resolution to arise.

The role of the mediator in
Hale’s model is to reframe the story into the “comic or hopeful frame.”[47] This frame assumes that “people can change,
situations can change, [and] systems can change.”[48] It is above all a hopeful frame. This frame holds that a mediator should
attempt to “reframe to focus on the larger system, or the bigger picture.”[49] The mediator should promote a belief in
change and self-examination. Hale
states that “[a] comic frame monitors the symbols by which others define
situations and bring about identification.”[50] One way the mediator can help create this
frame is, as discussed earlier, by manipulating the choice of metaphors,
symbols, stories or information reflected back which guide the conflict.

The role of the mediator is much like the role of the
psychotherapist. Neither really
possesses much power beyond that of persuading the people involved to accept
the mediator’s/therapist’s frame of the problem. At the heart of this power for the mediator is not rational or
logical argument. There exist rational
arguments for each viewpoint. But, the
mediator can wield much influence if he or she does so indirectly in order to
avoid hostile confrontation. A key
element here is the ability to reframe.
I have highlighted several novel ways a mediator can accomplish this
goal. At their most basic level each of
these techniques have a common structure.
That structure involves taking the framework that each participant in a
conflict holds from one of negativity to one that focuses on the positive
opportunities for resolution.

[1] Sidney Rosen, My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson 143
quoting Paul Watzlawick,
John Weakland & Richard Fisch, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and
Problem Resolution (1974).

[2] Id.
at 144.

[3] See id. at

[4] Id.
at 151-152.

[5] Id.
at 151.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.
at 152.

[8] Id.
at 152.

[9] Burton I. Zoub, Child Custody Litigation, Ch.
5: Mediation in Custody Disputes § 5.29
(Illinois Institute for Continuing Legal Education, February 1998).

[10] Id
at § 5.24.

[11] Id.

[12] Roger Fisher & William Ury, Getting to
Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (
New York: Penguin Books

[13] Id.
at § 5.29.

[14] Jennifer
Fisher, Symbol in Mediation, Mediation
, 2000, 18(1) 87-107.

[15] Id.
At 88.

[16] Id.
at 88 , quoting R. Troester & C. Kelly (eds.), Peacemaking Through Communication (1991) at 29.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id
at 96.

[20] Id.
at 97.

[21] Robert D.
Benjamin, The Constructive Uses of Deception: Skills, Strategies, and
Techniques of the Folkloric Trickster Figure and Their Application by
Mediation Quarterly,
1995, 13(1), 3-17.

[22] Id.
at 6.

[23] Id.
at 10.

[24] Id.
at 6.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.
at 7.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.
at 9

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Bruce
Phillips, Reformulating Dispute Narratives Through Active Listening, Mediation
Quarterly, 1999, 17(2), 161-180
at 179.

[34] Id.
at 165.

[35] Id.
at 168.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.
at 169.

[38] Id.
at 178.

[39] Id.

[40] Katherine
Hale, The Language of Cooperation: Negotiation Frames, Mediation Quarterly, 1998, 16(2), 147-162.

[41] Id.
at 149.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.
at 151.

[44] Id.
at 153.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.
at 154.

[48] Id.
at 155.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.
at 161.


Peter Blanciak

Peter Blanciak, J.D. 2001, University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Currently Law Clerk to the Honorable John J. Trucilla, Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Former experience includes work with the Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania, Alcoa, and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Aid Society. MORE >

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