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IJP2 Article Part 5: Cultivate the ability to adapt framings for different audiences

woman200pxAt the October 2008 NCDD conference in Austin, Texas, one thing people seemed to agree on related to the “Framing Challenge” was that dialogue and deliberation practitioners need to cultivate the ability to adapt framings for different audiences. How practitioners should emphasize potential action outcomes depends, in part, on whom they are trying to reach.

It may not be necessary to attract people from every group to every program. Talking in terms of social justice, social change and racial equity may work well when recruiting people of diverse ethnic backgrounds to a dialogue on racism, while focusing on learning about an issue may welcome conservatives into a conversation about the separation of church and state.

Once we understand how various framings play out with different groups, we can adapt our language to different audiences. On our Reflective Panel, David Campt emphasized the need for practitioners to be able to tailor both their language and their practice to distinct groups. How the topic of discussion is framed is potentially more important than how the program or process is framed. On the “Conservatives Panel,” Joseph McCormick mentioned framing a discussion on global warming as a dialogue on “energy security and climate change” to draw more conservatives. Theo Brown spoke of a similar multi-partisan initiative that abandoned a “gun control” framing for one centered on “reducing violence.”

The point here is not to encourage practitioners to become masters of “spin,” but to use language that people from potentially underrepresented groups can relate to, while remaining open and honest about the purpose of the program. Whether a program is designed to inform the mayor’s policy decisions, encourage citizen action on race issues, or build understanding among conflicting groups, it is important to be clear about the program’s aims from the start.

It should also be said that although collectively and individually, we seem to be developing more sensitivity to the impact language has on different groups, we try to encourage NCDD attendees not to shame or lecture each other, or worry overly about offending. As Jacob Hess said in his report on the Framing Challenge, “I came to NCDD San Francisco (2006) a ‘closet conservative’ – with most people ignorant of my background. I experienced so much warmth, optimism, and spirit there, that I had no chance of feeling unwelcome.” One of Hess’ personal conditions of good dialogue is the old Biblical emphasis on “being not easily provoked” (1 Corinthians 13) and we should all be a bit forgiving in our use of language.

Note from Sandy: This is my fifth blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community. The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin: The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in ways that are accessible to a broader audience?) and the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

This is the last segment from the section on the Framing Challenge.  Here’s a quick overview of all 5 segments:

1. Develop a common language of practice with more universal appeal
Can we identify common yet compelling language that represents the work we do in dialogue and deliberation? Can we get clear on our theories of change?

2. Consider how different framings affect different groups
Some terms we use in this field turn people away because they are too “new-agey” sounding; others because they are too academic or jargony, or because they have negative connotations or implications for certain audiences. Practitioners are acquiring and cultivating greater sensitivity to the ways that distinct language ‘plays out’ for different groups.

3. Understand the specific concerns of conservatives
Progressives seem to be more drawn to public engagement work than conservatives. Understanding and acknowledging conservatives’ concerns about this work is key.

4. Frame in terms of general goals and desired outcomes
While no single framing works for all audiences, practitioners are finding success in focusing on the purpose or potential outcomes (in general) of engagement rather than focusing on process.

5. Cultivate the ability to adapt framings for different audiences
How practitioners should emphasize potential action outcomes depends, in part, on who they are trying to reach. We must use language to which people from potentially underrepresented groups can relate, while remaining open and honest about the purpose of the program.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. John Backman says:

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    To what extent do we shift the focus of the dialogue when we reframe the language? I can imagine a situation in which, by speaking of a gun-control dialogue in terms of "reducing violence," one might not only attract a different group of participants, but even begin to reframe the issue in one's own mind. Perhaps I convene a dialogue with a concern for gun control, but as I reframe it, I become more aware of the larger issue. In many cases, this could be a good thing.

    Does anyone else think that reframing could lead to rethinking?

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