Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #17: Effective communication strategies – Reframing in lockdown: Part 1

Reframe 3

In post # 16 we discussed the mediator’s tool of acknowledgement as an important way to provide feedback to the people we are communicating with in lockdown that we are understanding the messages they are communicating to us. Acknowledgement is the second of the five elements of the communication skill set represented by the acronym LARSQ – after listening.

This post focuses on the next element of LARSQ – reframing. Reframing is a complex and important communication skill – so it will take two posts to cover it properly. This first post explains reframing and the second assists with developing the skill of reframing. Understanding reframing and being able to enact it in lockdown communications can play an important part in the prevention, management and resolution of disputes.

Understanding reframing

Reframing is closely related to active listening. It is a responsive communication strategy. People communicate within a frame of reference based on how they see the world in terms of culture, experiences and sense of justice. The goal of reframing is to change this frame of reference in order to get the people we are communicating with to think differently about matters, or at least to get them to see things in a different light. Reframing is based on the fact that the language we use affects how we perceive the world (see also post # 4). By changing the type of language we use, we can change perceptions – and changed perceptions can then lead to changed behaviour – which is required for the prevention, management and resolution of disputes in lockdown.

Reframe 2When mediators reframe, they are engaging in a translation exercise through which they change the communication by moving it from one type of language to another. The intention is that the second language version is more palatable to the parties and more conducive to collaborative problem-solving.

Reframing takes place through mediators using different words, concepts and terms, using altered emphases and intonations, and otherwise qualifying what the parties have themselves said in order to provide a new frame of reference. Reframing not only changes the words being used but also changes the context of the parties’ statements. For example, this change might be from positive to negative, from positions to interests or from the past to the future. The shift in emphasis can help parties consider a more constructive frame of reference.

Where reframing is successful it leads to changes in perspective or perception for the parties and, as indicated, the altered attitude or view of the dispute can lead to the changes in behaviour necessary for constructive communication and interaction. While the original frame of reference may have had a negative effect on the management or resolution of a dispute, the new frame of reference will be conducive to constructive communication and problem-solving.

It’s important to emphasise that reframing is more than just a terminological exercise; it is about re-orienting the whole tone of the discussions. Where a party points out what is wrong, the mediator asks them to indicate what would be right for them. Where a party continually emphasises what they don’t want, the mediator gets them to talk about what they do want. Where a party goes on about what the other party wants, the mediator asks them to state what they themselves want.

There is similarity between reframing and the design of jokes. A joke-teller encourages a certain point of view but when the punchline is delivered the listener sees the preceding story in a different light. On the face of it, the punchline is incongruous but when the listener catches the joke by seeing the previous narrative in a new light, then the incongruous becomes congruous. The humour is caused by surprise, relief or delight, which occurs when the punchline is delivered, and the listener has to change his or her erroneous prior expectations. In other words, a scene is first described from one viewpoint and then rearranged, sometimes by a single word. Likewise, mediators have the capacity through reframing to restructure parties’ perceptions of a dispute situation. In joke-telling the switch-over is temporary and gives rise to humour whereas in mediation it can be long-lasting and give rise to insight. While the joke-teller reframes to achieve laughter, the mediator reframes to contribute to problem-solving.

The functions of reframing

Reframing can serve a number of different functions, though no single reframe can perform each one of the functions simultaneously. Nor is reframing a continuous form of mediator intervention; it is used selectively where it can perform one of the stated purposes. The various functions of reframing include:

Reframe 1

  • detoxifying language by removing accusations, judgments and verbal stings and barbs;
  • focusing on the positive by removing references to negatives and other destructive elements in the language;
  • focusing on interests by removing references to positions and solutions and reframing to underlying needs and requirements;
  • focusing on the future by removing references to the past and reframing to future needs and interests;
  • highlighting the general themes in a specific statement;
  • focusing on details, specific terms and concrete actions rather than general sweeping statements; and
  • mutualising problems by avoiding one-sided definitions and reframing to dual-sided formulations.

Potential challenges in reframing

There are potential challenges with the process of reframing. Problems arise if a mediator does not carry out the reframe appropriately, or when a suspicious or distrustful party finds it an alienating experience. In either event the party’s subjective assessment will be the same, namely that the reframing intervention has not contributed constructively to the mediation discourse. Therefore:

  • Reframing is a difficult art and if performed badly may be seen as mere parroting of what the parties say. (‘Why do you keep repeating everything I say …?’)
  • Reframing could be seen as manipulative. (‘That’s not what I said, you keep twisting my words …’)
  • Reframing could be perceived as the mediator favouring one party and losing his or her non-partisan role. (‘You seem to be agreeing with the other side all the time …’)

Nevertheless, appropriate reframing is a powerful mediator intervention and it can be readily improved through practice. One of the golden rules for avoiding the potential problems is to consciously maintain impartiality in the reframing role and to use the intervention in relation to both parties’ communications. However, it takes some trial and error to achieve the correct balance.

In the next post we explore what reframing looks like and how it can fulfil the functions listed above so that the skill can be developed for more effective lockdown communications in homes and virtual offices.

Tomorrow’s Blog: Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #18: Effective communication strategies – Reframing in lockdown: Part 2


Mediation skills and techniquesThe content of this post was adapted and reproduced from Laurence Boulle and Nadja Alexander, Mediation Skills and Techniques (LexisNexis, 3rd ed, 2020) paras 6.47-6.54 with the kind permission of the authors. Thank you Laurence and Nadja! Both Laurence and Nadja are esteemed members of the ADR Research Network and have long been leaders in the Australian and international dispute resolution communities.


Reframe image 1: The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Reframe image 2: Lisa Christiansen

Reframe image 3: NJlifehacks

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rachael Field. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Rachael Field

Rachael is a Professor of Law in the Law Faculty of Bond University. Her key teaching and research interests are in legal education and dispute resolution. Rachael was awarded an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation in 2008 and was made an ALTC Teaching Fellow in 2010. In 2010 Rachael worked with Professors Sally Kift and Mark Israel on the development of the Threshold Learning Outcomes for Law. In 2013 Rachael and Prof Nick James published a first year law text entitled "The New Lawyer". Rachael has been a member of the First Year in Higher Education Conference organising committee since 2007 and now chairs that committee. She was awarded the 2013 Lexis Nexis Australasian Law Teachers’ Association Major Prize for Teaching Excellence and Innovation jointly with her colleague James Duffy. In 2014 Rachael was awarded an Office of Learning and Teaching national Teaching Excellence Award. Rachael has also been a member of the Women’s Legal Service, Brisbane Management Committee since 1994 and has been President of the Service since 2004. In 2010 Rachael, along with the Women's Legal Service Brisbane, was commissioned by the Federal Attorney-General to design a model of family dispute resolution for use in matters where there is a history of domestic violence. This model was implemented in 5 locations around Australia for 18 months and was evaluated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. In 2011 and 2012 Rachael was invited by the Australian Human Rights Commission to contribute to their International Program by presenting the model to bi-lateral workshops with the All China Women's Federation. Rachael completed her PhD through the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney under the supervision of Professor Hilary Astor in 2011. Her thesis explored the notion of neutrality in mediation and offers an alternative paradigm based on professional mediator ethics. Rachael was named Queensland Women Lawyer of the Year for 2013. Research Interests • Dispute Resolution • Women and the Law • Restorative Justice • Family Law • Legal Education

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