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Naming and Framing Difficult Issues to Make Sound Decisions

The 28-page report, Naming and Framing Difficult Issues to Make Sound Decisions (2016)was written by David Mathews and supported by the Cousins Research Group of the Kettering Foundation.

In the report, Mathews shares some core realizations Kettering has come to learn over the last 30 years of research about how people make decisions and take action. Kettering has found that there are two moments in the decision-making process that are especially important: naming and framing. The way a problem is defined and the how the different options are framed; significantly impacts how effective the process and response will be.

Below is an excerpt of the report and it can be found in full at the bottom of this page or on Kettering Foundation’s site here.


From the guide…

People are much more likely to work together if they have participated in the decision making about what to do. And in making the decision, they may come to a more complete understanding of the nature of the problem they are facing, which could open their eyes to untapped resources that they can bring to bear.

The obvious question is, what would motivate citizens to invest their limited time and other resources in grappling with problems brimming with emotionally charged disagreements? Generally speaking, people avoid conflict, and they don’t usually invest their energy unless they see that something deeply important to them, their families, and their neighbors is at stake. And they won’t get involved unless they believe there is something they, themselves, must do.

Therefore, in order for citizens to make sound decisions and take effective collective action, they have to:
• Connect with the things that are deeply important to them,
• Deal with normative disagreements that can lead to immobilizing polarization, and
• Identify those things that they can do through their collective efforts to help solve problems.

The Potential in Naming and Framing
There are opportunities to master these challenges at two critical moments in dealing with problems. One occurs when a problem is being named, that is, when someone defines the problem. This is usually done by a news organization, a professional group, or a political leader. While seemingly insignificant, Kettering Foundation research has found that who gets to name a problem— and how they name it—are critical factors that go a long way in determining how effective the response will be.

Another critical moment occurs when different options for dealing with a problem are put into a framework for decision making. There may just be one option on the table, a solution favored by a school board or championed by an interest group. Or there may be the predictable two options in a political debate, one being the polar opposite of the other. Our research suggests that deliberation is more likely to occur if the full range of options is available for consideration.

As every trial attorney knows, whoever controls the way an issue is framed in a court case has the upper hand. So how a framework for decision making is created— how the case is presented, as it were—plays a critical role in problem solving. This report describes ways of naming problems and framing issues that give citizens a greater ability to chart their future and solve problems. The results of this naming and framing might be a guide to use in forums or town meetings, or it might be a strategy used to break out of solution wars and give the public a stronger voice in decision making. Naming and framing can also be done in classrooms to introduce students to roles that citizens can play in politics other than campaigning and voting.

One clarification: while naming and framing are critical, they aren’t ends in themselves. They are just two elements in the larger politics of public decision making and acting. To reach a decision, people have to weigh various options for acting on a problem against all of the things they feel are at stake. Unless that happens, unless people face up to the consequences and sacrifices that are inescapable in every option, including the option they favor, there is no way to know how they will react when push comes to shove—as always happens on difficult issues. When people wrestle with the trade-offs they may need to make, they will often revise the name they have been using, or they may put more or new options on the table to consider.

In making decisions together, people also have to be mindful of the resources they will need, how they will commit those resources, and how they will organize the actions that need to be taken. These are other critical moments. When resources are being identified, they may or may not include resources that citizens have, such as the social relationships they can draw on. When resources are committed, the commitments may be limited to legally binding contracts and not include the promises people make to one another, covenants that also enforce obligations. When actions are organized, they may be bureaucratically directed and not make use of the self-directing capacities of citizens, such as networking. All of these are junctures when people are either drawn into or shut out of what should be the public’s business. And the way problems are named and issues are framed paves the way for all that follows.

This is an excerpt of the report, download the full guide at the bottom of this page to learn more.

About Kettering Foundation
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/catalog/product/naming-and-framing-2016

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