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Issue Framing (archive from the NCDD Wiki)

A “frame” is a way of understanding or interpreting what is going on and how we should relate to it. How we frame an issue or conflict (or how it is framed for us) has a tremendous impact on what we do about it…

Framing Issues for Battle and Collective Intelligence

by Tom Atlee

Political issues and candidates are constantly being framed as part of their PR ‘spin.’ Political framing specializes in reducing a complex issue to two highly charged (polarized) positions. For example, the abortion issue is usually framed in terms of ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’. If you don’t agree with the pro-choicers, you are against choice. If you don’t agree with the pro-lifers, you are anti-life. These framings are very effective at mobilizing support for various policies and politicians on both sides.

Framing is a hot topic in U.S. political circles right now because the 2004 election is seen as evidence that Republicans have been remarkably successful at framing themselves and their opponents in the public mind. Now many Democrats and progressives are anxiously studying up on framing, and debating among themselves how best to win the framing game.

Framing THAT debate is linguist George Lakoff, with his recent book ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.’ A brilliant metaphor expert, Lakoff spotlights the powerful role of metaphors in framing. One of his favorite examples is the phrase ‘tax relief.’ It metaphorically frames taxes as an ‘affliction’ from which certain policies or candidates will bring ‘relief.’ ‘That’s a conservative metaphor,’ notes Lakoff. ‘The people who want to get rid of taxes are heroes and the people who don’t are the villains. When words like ‘tax relief’ are repeated over and over again, they come to be the normal way to talk about taxes.’ Historically, taxes in a democracy have been framed as the membership fees for being citizens in a self-governing society, or what citizens pay for the services provided by government. But these ‘membership fee’ or ‘cost of service’ metaphors have been effectively sidelined in the current public debate about taxes, thanks to the successful Republican framing.

Political framing (like most other powerful PR activities) involves shaping people’s awareness to get them to see things your way. Usually this involves narrowing their view so that other views appear dangerous, ridiculous or incomprehensible. This is quite functional if politics is thought of (framed) as a ‘battle.’ But what if we want to think of it as a conversation, or as community problem-solving and decision-making?

It turns out there is an entirely different world of framing out there, one associated with practices like conflict resolution, nonviolent communication, deliberative democracy and choice-creating. In this world, the purpose of framing isn’t to narrow people’s awareness, but to expand it — to evoke greater understanding of diverse perspectives and to embrace a wider range of views and people in co-creative, co-intelligent choices about their shared future.

In many deliberative activities – like National Issues Forums (NIF) http://www.nifi.org and study circles http://www.studycircles.org – the issue is framed ahead of time in ‘issue books’ or ‘discussion guides’ given to the deliberators, and/or by a roster of expert witnesses for deliberators to interview (as in many citizen deliberative councils http://co-intelligence.org/CDCUsesAndPotency.html). Deliberation organizers take pains to make sure their briefings are unbiased and engaging. Usually such deliberative briefings describe the larger context and some of the underlying ‘issues within the issue,’ then provide 3-5 or more (seldom just two) approaches to the issue, with various arguments pro and con, and notes on the values and trade-offs associated with each approach.

I was fascinated by NIF framing techniques I learned at a day-long workshop at the Oct 2004 National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation conference. NIF starts by researching the concerns various citizens and partisans have about the issue under consideration — and the values that seem to underlie their diverse positions. The next stage is as much art as science: NIF crafts a set of non-positional but diverse values-based approaches to the issue — 3-5 approaches that are not mutually exclusive but together embrace a wide range of options found in commonly held positions. These approaches are described in ways that allow diverse deliberators to resonate (at least somewhat) with aspects of each approach. When they can see their own values at work in each of the choices they’re asked to consider, citizens can better listen to each other’s perspectives and are less apt to stay stuck in habitually narrow opinions.

As the deliberators talk among themselves within the context of such inclusive framings, they begin to understand how EVERY choice involves trade-offs. In the end they find themselves stretched and challenged to face the difficult choices implicit in their own positions. This sometimes inspires a group to explore beyond the mainstream spectrum of possibilities into more inclusive or creative options. NIF collects their struggles and deliberative judgments and shares them with public officials, media, pundits and the public.

Although most public deliberation activities use some variation of the above approach, not all issue framing is deliberative, done beforehand, or based on concerns and values. Often a useful framing emerges or evolves during the process of conversation, helped along by a facilitator or mediator.

  • Many negotiation and mediation methods frame conflicts in terms of interests – the reasons or hoped-for benefits underlying the positions asserted by competing parties. A moderator helps the conflicted parties clarify and agree on their ‘legitimate interests’ so they can together search for solutions that embrace all those interests. With surprising frequency, this approach actually works. It is the foundation of one of the most influential negotiation books ever written – Roger Fisher and William Ury’s ‘Getting to Yes’ http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/example/fish7513.htm.
  • Nonviolent Communication http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-nonviolentcomm.html frames conflict in terms of unmet needs. One or more of the conflicted parties (or a facilitator) works to clarify the unmet needs underlying both (or all) sides of a situation using questions, empathic imagination and reflective listening – and searches for ways to satisfy those needs that are agreeable to all involved. This approach and its deeply human philosophy have also had significant success, and have even become a way of life for thousands of practitioners.
  • During the powerful group problem-solving process called Dynamic Facilitation – or ‘choice-creating’ http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-dynamicfacilitation.html – the issue under consideration gets framed and reframed as it evolves dynamically during the conversation by the participants in their responses to each other and to questions from the facilitator. In addition, the facilitator reframes attacks as concerns by asking the attacker ‘So, what’s your concern? Give it to me.’ and writing it up on a chart pad entitled ‘Concerns,’ making sure the attacker feels fully heard and valid in their concern. The facilitator will also usually follow up by then asking, ‘What do you think should be done about that?’ and logging the answer on a chart pad listing ‘Possible Solutions.’ Similarly, the facilitator will reframe any demands and positions as ‘Possible Solutions.’ As this ‘transformational conversation’ proceeds, new descriptions or definitions of the problem are usually voiced by the group – and the facilitator duly posts them on a ‘Problem Statement’ chart pad. Purported facts and information are written on a ‘Data’ chart pad as they come up. All these unfold interactively in a constant reframing that follows the group’s energy and evolving understanding.
  • In consensus process http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-consensus.html, similarly, the issue under discussion is framed and reframed continually by the participants individually and collectively. When the facilitator hears a new collective framing emerging from the group, he or she may point it out to the group, checking if it is a truly shared understanding. Consensus process pays special attention to concerns, always asking for them again when a decision seems imminent, on the theory that if everyone’s concerns are adequately addressed, the final decision will have more wisdom and broad support.

Clearly there are ample resources for framing issues and conflicts in ways that invite the inclusion and engagement of diverse people and perspectives. We don’t have to settle for oversimplified either/or, win/lose framings. We can adventure into the creative complexity of issues, into both/and … and beyond.

To do so, however, we need to pay attention to what is deeper than people’s mutually exclusive ‘positions’ and ‘demands’ (including our own) and explore into the deeper realms of underlying interests, concerns, values and needs. The deeper we go, the more common ground we find, for we all share fundamental human needs http://www.cnvc.org/needs.htm and a profound kinship woven out of our shared genes, spirit and experience http://co-intelligence.org/resonant_intelligence.html. When we encounter each other there, we can do wonders.

This is a tremendously practical fact. Far more often than most people realize, it is possible to find solutions that satisfy all of us. I hope this essay encourages more people to try. Even when we can’t seem to achieve such win/win solutions, we can at least wake up to the actual complexity of the issues we’re dealing with – a complexity which includes each other – and realize that very decent, intelligent people can legitimately have different views on life. With that insight we can then fully respect each other – and appreciate the difficult task of official decision-makers – even when the final ‘choice work’ needs to be wrestled out through all the power plays, strategizing, PR spins, compromises and deal-making of adversarial politics.

In the end, it is ALL conversation. The more inclusive and wise we can make that web of conversation, the more wisdom and less force we will use in forging our future together.

For more info on partisan framing, see…


Thom Hartmann’s review of George Lakoff’s ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate’ (book) and ‘How Democrats and Progressives Can Win’ (DVD).


Dave Gilson’s ‘Mother Jones’ interview with George Lakoff: “How to Talk Like a Conservative (If You Must).”


The Metaphor Project

For more information on framing for deliberation and conflict resolution, see…


The “framing” tag here in the NCDD Resource Center.


‘General Information About Framing’ (and related links) by the Conflict Research Consortium. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors.


The New England Center for Public Life FAQ


Issue Framing: Issue Books and Implications for Community Action by Christopher Kelley


A wide selection of various organizations’ discussion guides accessible through the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation website

In contrast, for an example of an attempt to present voters with a fair, balanced framing of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ views on a variety of issues (which, by offering two opposing sides, may be less useful for collective deliberation, but is still thought-provoking for individual citizens), see


American Voice 2004 project of the Institute for Self-Reliance

This resource was created on the NCDD wiki (circa 2004-06) by members of the dialogue & deliberation community.

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