Facilitation Friday #35: The Power of Framing

How would the conversation be different if instead of talking about the elections in battleground terms, we spoke of it through the lens of the playground?

While some of the negative spirit might be retained (think recess bullies), I can't help believe some childlike curiosity, willingness to play with others, and free spirit might emerge.

Though political campaigns are a timely illustration, we are too accustomed to using war metaphors and language to characterize so many regular events that don't in any way need to be labeled as such.

Just as the matte and frame shapes how you view a photograph or piece of art, so does the way we frame topics and issues impact subsequent perceptions, beliefs, and conversation.   Effective facilitation often involves helping people explore the consequences of the way they currently frame issues, as well as challenging and supporting them to frame their discussions in new language to generate new possibilities.  Example: "I'm wondering if this issue could be described and discussed using different language than what's currently in play?

With art, the right frame gives the images it envelops room to breath, to have their own meaning through the eyes of the viewer. If a group wants to produce meaningful exchanges and thinking at both the interpersonal and organizational levels, the members need to frame issues and topics to produce similar results.

Instead, individuals often use win-lose framing, language that presents strongly biased positions serving as rigid boundaries for any subsequent dialogue.  As facilitators we can often paraphrase and restate individuals' comments in ways that expand the frame through which their message may be heard.  In doing so, of course, we must be careful not to distort the original meaning.

When individuals are on the receiving end of limiting frames, they can feel disenfranchised or disadvantaged position.  In turn, they may act more defensive or be more assertive than if the conversation's playing field was more open and exploratory in nature. 

In our facilitation we need to operate as systems thinkers, reacting not just to any defensiveness or assertiveness we might observe, but digging deeper to identify the structural issues in the meeting to workshops that might be producing such reactions.  Framing often is the source, and it is here that our attention should be directed.  Simple interventions facilitators can make include:
  • Are there other perspectives on the issue?
  • How might we reframe the core question to elicit fresh insights?
  • How is the way this issue has been framed enhancing or impeding the thinking you want to occur?
  • What role is the language currently being used having on the overall tone of this conversation?
When doing home remodeling, it is useful to consider changing how some of your art is framed. Such a simple change can often refresh an old look and make things seem new again. We need to be willing to do the same thing with how we frame issues and efforts, both personal and professional.

Effective facilitation helps discussions in workshops, meetings, and planning sessions frame the topics at hand in the manner which will allow the most thoughtful and deliberative discussions and decision-making. When we help others do that, they are most likely to produce a real work of art.

What is frequently used language that frames issues in ways that enhance (or impede) meaningful exploration?

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Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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