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Framing*: A Vital Skill in Problem Solving and Negotiation

-Presidential Candidate Joe Biden has framed wearing masks as a “patriotic duty” not a burden.

-Scientists now frame “hunger” as “food insecurity” in order to capture both the physical and mental effects of such

-Former Congress Member John Lewis framed his approach as “Good trouble” indicating that the status quo needed to be shaken a bit. This approach does not include arson, looting or rioting.

-What sounds safer? Total Knee Replacement? Or Knee Arthroplasty?

It has been said,

They who frame the issue, win the issue.

Framing is important and is a great skill in problem solving and negotiation.

Framing is how an effective negotiator captures the positions, interests and issues in a situation By framing the effective negotiator organizes the situation so it is understandable to all. It helps all those involved to focus.

An effective negotiator needs to know specifically what their frames are and those of all involved parties. If a frame is not working, then the situation may need reframing. Reframing is redefining the issues and interests. Reframing may occur when new information is received.

Negotiators (People) React Differently to How an Issue is Framed

Research and experience shows that people react very differently to various frames.

For example, Gay Marriage made much progress when it was framed as a family issue rather than a “right.” The issue of “parental leave” has been reframed to “social need.” Some of those who advocate for people to have the choice to end life, frame it not as suicide but “the right to relinquish life under extraordinary terrible health issues.

Uber and Lyft are struggling with how to catalog their drivers. Are they “partners,” “independent contractors” or employees?”

Residence Inns have a campaign for Guests to see their establishment not as a hotel but a residence.

Neighbors who want to have pet chickens do not want them to be called “backyard chickens.”

US Social Security advocates want this to be viewed as a return on investment rather than an entitlement.

Framing Negotiation in Teaching Law

When I was in law school, negotiation was barely mentioned. Odd, since statistics will demonstrate that 95% of all criminal cases are eventually negotiated (or plea bargained) and that 98% of all civil cases are negotiated, often at the last moment or “on the courthouse steps.”

In today’s law schools, negotiation is framed as a vital skill. At The George Washington University School of Law (DC) and Capital University School of Law, many dispute resolution courses are offered including various negotiation courses. Today, a law student could almost major in the dispute resolution field.

Framing Negotiation as Goal Oriented.

Further, when negotiation was touched upon during my law school days, it was presented as an adversarial process. A retired Judge taught Trial Advocacy which contained a module on negotiation. He presented it this way:

Invite your opponent to your office to give you power. Sit behind a large desk. Seat your opponent in a soft couch or chair so they are looking up at you. Open the window blinds so the sun shines in their eyes. With all of the disadvantages, start negotiating to Win.

Today, we framed negotiation as a goal oriented process. We call our negotiating opponent, our partner. Symbolically, we use a round or oval table to demonstrate no sides to the situation. We cease using the term “problem” and substitute “situation.” We negotiators sit by side communicating and resolving the issues. We use skills not tricks. We do not manipulate but persuade.

Using this non-adversarial negotiation approach often leads to creative, long lasting resolutions. So, instead of dividing the pie as some negotiators do in distributive negotiation, we collaborative negotiators throw out the pie and create agreements that sometimes go beyond our goals.

People React Differently to Frames

Experiences demonstrate that people react very differently to how issues are framed. Often instead of “risks” we can use the term “opportunities.” Word choices and phrases can affect the negotiation. For example instead of purchase price, maybe net profit potential can be the focus.

To frame effectively, you need to place yourself in the shoes of your fellow negotiator. What would be most persuasive or influential to them? No one frame is right. Often personal biases and experiences affect how people views framing.

Research Experiment Framing Dying or Saving Lives:

In 1982 Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky presented a group of subjects (Group 1) with the following scenario: Asian Disease Problem

Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows:

-If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

-If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

Which of the two Programs would you favor?

For a second group of subjects (Group 2), instead of Programs A and B, the following alternative Programs C and D were given (all else the same):

-If Program C is adopted, 400 people will die.

-If Program D is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

The abundantly confirmed results of this survey indicate that the difference in wording (“will be saved,” “will die”) induces a large majority of Group 1 (76%) to select Program A, and a large majority of Group 2 to select Program D. All the programs have the same expected utility, so there must be something about the wording distinct from expected utility that guides and explains the choices.

Verbal packaging explains the choices as the effects of framing, i.e. the effects of describing essentially equivalent decisions in insignificantly different ways.

The Stanford Video Guide to Negotiating: Sluggers come Home, Kantola Productions.

How: To effectively frame, one must use critical thinking skills.

Step One: Envision the ideal resolution or agreement to the problem aka situation. (A positive approach is to reframe “problem” to situation.)

Step Two: Establish a range from which the situation can be resolved. On one side: what is the walk-away. What could all the parties “live with.” On the other, what is the ideal. Use creativity skills. Think “outside the box.” Think outside the standard resolution. Involve emotions and passions in a well-managed way.

Step Three: Put one’s self in the shoes of the other involved parties. How might one frame the issues to be persuasive to them?


-TULMULT: MSNBC Jonathan Lemier used this term in referring to the current situations in Rochester, Portland, Kenosha, etc. Others might use the term rioting, vandalism, looting and arson. Tumult is defined as “confused noise.” This is surely different from rioting=violent public disorder.

-NEW CAR: There is a new commercial for a new car. Folks in the commercial are wondering whether to frame the new car as Alexa or Encore GX Buick? Of course, it is both.

-Escalating a complaint: In these days, when one makes a complaint to a utility they often try to make you feel it is important by “escalating” the complaint to “Senior level” and they give you a new case number. Most likely nothing more really happened with your complaint, but they want you to feel as if you have been heard.

-U. S. Civil War: For many years, school history books in the South framed the war as “the war of Northern aggression” or the “unpleasantness” or “The War Between the States” instead of the Civil War.

-Abortion: One side is pro-life and the other pro-choice. I like the sound of both.

-Guns: The Oakland, CA, Mayor frames guns as a health issue.

-Rain Tax: In many jurisdictions such as Maryland, there is a charge for real property owners for storm water drainage from impervious surfaces. Some call this, the rain tax; others, save the environment.

-Bag tax: In some jurisdictions, they charge five cents per bag. I call this, a bag tax. Promoters call this, Saving the Anacostia River!

-Race as a moral issue: It is said that Robert K. Kennedy persuaded his Brother John F. Kennedy to frame the issue of race as a moral not a political issue.

-Variable parking: DC recently introduced “variable parking.” On the surface this sounds good, right? What this actually means is that DC government can charge more for parking at select times in select spaces.

-Retiring? My colleague Ane says, she is not retiring, she is repurposing her life.

When you read the Laws of Persuasion, you will be reading about the Verbal Packaging law which is basically framing and reframing.

When you watch the Sluggers Baseball video, the moderator will lecture on framing. So, the baseball field owners can discuss net, rather than lease rate.

-GUNS AS HEALTH ISSUE 7/2020 Oakland Mayor frames guns as a health issue.

-CONFEDERATE FLAG: A person in Tolono, IL, sees the flag as a symbol of white people’s shared grievances. He says it stands for rebellion, not hatred.

-RAIN TAX IN Maryland: Wikipedia defines rain tax as a stormwater fee is a charge imposed on real estate owners for pollution in stormwater drainage from impervious surface runoff.

-Watershed protection. Reducing watershed pollution.

-CLEMSON, SC, BUILDING DISASTER: In October, 2018, a building floor fell in as scores of students were dancing in unison. Media initially framed this as “just students having fun or dancing and having fun.” Others in the community called it a wild party with students drinking and not using common sense? The Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity had leased this 2004 clubhouse building for Homecoming Weekend.

-DIANE ROEHM INTERNATIONAL RADIO SHOW HOUR: For many years NPR personality Roehm devoted one hour of her Friday radio show to international news. In some ways this was most odd since 90% of the stories emanated from the Middle East part of the world. Others began calling this the Middle East Hour.

-Race Issue as Moral Issue: In the early 1960’s Robert F. Kennedy who later became the US Attorney General persuaded John F. Kennedy who would soon be President to reframe the race issue as a moral issue not a political issue. With this reframing, JFK made more progress towards passing the Civil Rights Law (which eventually passed in 1964).

-LUXURY LEASING CONCIERGE EXPERIENCE. This is a term used to replace rental apartment offices at luxury residences (DC based Washington Hilton is one example).

-HABITUATED NOT ADDICTED. Some folks have been substituting habituation instead of addicted, thinking this change of term might help the healing.

-WMATA (Washington Area Metro Transit Authority) launched an improvement plan called, Back to good. Many questioned the wiseness of this slogan. Do customers want to go back? Are customers comfortable with just “good” service or do they want excellent service?

-DC SAFEWAY Grocery Dupont Circle Neighborhood: This grocery store wanted to start selling beer and wine. Some neighbors objected framing their argument: Food not booze. They claimed that each square foot that was devoted to wine and beer reduced the amount of food being offered.

-DEPENDS: An Atlanta, Georgia, TV commercial featured fire fighters wearing depends underwear placing a new spin on this item.

Framing for Risk, Loss and Gain

There is a huge body of research of how people react to loss, risk and gain.

In a simplistic way, the book Who Moved My Cheese captures this research. Well respected Author Dr. Spencer Johnson contends that people can be divided into three somewhat equal categories:

-People who love change. These folks may cause change to happen even when it is not necessary to the consternation of others.

-People who hate change. These folks resist and hate change to the point that they will lose out on opportunities and advantages to avoid such.

The book deals with three symbolic mice who represent each category.

-People who are hesitant about change: These folks wonder about change. They will flow along with change if they see some advantages for them following the theory of WIIFM or WIIFT (What’s in it for me/them?).

Negotiators need to contemplate how they feel about change and how this might affect their reactions to the situation and to issues.

Secondly, they need to think about how all of the other parties confront change and again how this might color their negotiation reactions.

Effective negotiators then tailor their proposals to each category.

Who Moved My Cheese Lessons?

-Realize that change is inevitable.

-Anticipate change.

-Monitor change.

-Adapt quickly to change.

-You create change.

-Enjoy change.

Risk and Change:

In many cases, the terms risk and change can be interchanged. Each individual has a unique approach to risk tolerance and risk averse. This may vary according to the topic. Most people are risk averse when it comes to health and safety. They may be risk tolerant when it comes to extra money.

Negotiators need to think about framing so that the frame is more risk averse.

Politics and Framing:

In the political world, one might see a parallel between framing and political correctness (PC). In the most positive sense, PC is about framing terms, issues and words so they do not offend particular races, genders, origins and other possibly minority groups. Usually the transformation of such terms does not harm to others and is easy to do; albeit, it changes the status quo and change is challenging for some folks.

So, for example, “Chairman” becomes “Chair;” Policeman becomes “police officer or “mankind” becomes “humankind.”

Some, are bothered by this transition although no harm is being done.

At the same time, any concept including PC can be used to the extremes aka ridiculousness. Some present the example of people in San Francisco who want to rebrand “felons” as “returning residents.” Several cite several colleges who have said that being “on time” in not politically correct since “time is fluid in some cultures.”

But “the framing skill” is not about being sensitive but instead about making a situation or issue more understandable, more easy to manage in a negotiation setting.


Framing and reframing are great skills for negotiators, mediators, problem solvers and conflict managers. Some people even say,

They who frame the issue, win the issue.

Framing is a way of organizing the situation and bringing focus to the vital interests at play.

To effectively frame, one should envision the ideal agreement or resolution that is sought. Framing then emanates from that ideal providing direction for discussion and negotiation.

*The concept of Framing is a concept very close to Verbal Packaging. The Law of Verbal Packaging is a chapter in Kurt Mortensen’s book: Maximum Persuasion. Verbal Packaging may be more closely associated with marketing and branding. This is the practice of using terms that emotionally connect with consumers or buyers. This law will be the subject of an upcoming Blog Entry.

Example: Instead of “used cars,” the verbiage of “pre-owned” cars is used.

On the positive side, creatively branding an item often makes it more attractive for a consumer to acquire or purchase.

On the negative side, some verbal packaging may seem “too clever, by half.” A trend in advertising is to persuade the buyer that they have a role in a purchase. For example, instead of using the term “mortgage,” companies are using the term “yourgage.” Even when it comes to some prescription drugs, the advertisers talk in terms of “We” meaning the Doctor and the Patient decided jointly to take this medicine. Marriott Residence Inn uses the term “Your residence.”

The Mortensen book points out examples of the airlines using the term “flotation device” rather than “life preserver” or “Motion Sickness bag” instead of “barf bag.”


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