What Is Reframing and Why Use It in Conflict

…reframing is the process of changing the way a thought is presented so that it maintains its fundamental meaning but is more likely to support resolution efforts.’

Bernard S. Mayer

Changing the frame

Reframing is an important and effective technique used in conflict resolution. When we reframe a conflict discussion, we give it a new frame just like we may give a painting a new frame. The painting, or the essence of the discussion, stays the same but it may look quite different with its new surround.

Reframing improves communication by eliminating criticism, de-escalating emotions and identifying the core need. It also emphasizes a shared goal.

When we use reframing, we change the tone of the conversation. When emotions run high, the tone of the conversations can easily become harsh and critical.

As a result of a critical tone, the listener often stops listening as the messages are too unpleasant to take in.

When we reframe, we change the words we use and our tone of voice. The context of the discussion changes. In the example below, rather than focus on describing the other person, the focus is on the struggle of the past year and the ‘stuckness’ the speaker feels.

Original message: The past year has been an annus horribilis. Nothing has gone right. I don’t think anything will be good again. My manager is being so difficult. She doesn’t want to accept that I don’t want to continue working in her team. She keeps on trying to pull me back. I feel so stuck.

Reframed message: I’ve had a really difficult year and I’m not sure how to turn things around.

Reframing can be used to move a high conflict argument into a more constructive direction. It defuses charged emotions. You can gently move the communication from a negative perspective to a positive perspective. It moves the discussion from gridlock to opportunity and possibility.

Reframing does not change the meaning of the message

Reframing makes our communication clearer. The reframed message still accurately reflects the intended meaning of the original statement but it is communicated differently and more effectively. The core meaning of the message doesn’t change.

Below is an example of how reframing makes the speaker’s core message clearer.

Original message: That director is really troubled. Have you heard of gaslighting? That’s what he does to me. He’s constantly trying to manipulate me and get me to do what he wants.

Reframed message: I am finding interaction with the director really challenging at the moment. 

Reframing brings more focus into the conversation by directing the conversation to what is the essence. Sometimes in high conflict arguments everything is brought to the table, making the discussion fall apart. 

Reframing tips

  1. Instead of trying to address every single issue that is brought up or defend yourself against every accusation, shift the discussion to the core disagreement.
  2. Sometimes a discussion is so far gone that it is better to create a new discussion altogether. Take a good break and start over. You are creating a new frame. 
  3. Remind yourself that what you really want to achieve is to be understood by the other party. Don’t focus on refuting accusations or winning an argument. 
  4. Try focussing on a small part of the problem rather than trying to discuss the whole issue in one go.
  5. Remember to describe yourself and not the other party. They’ll stop listening if you criticize them.
  6. Look for common ground and agreement rather than focusing on what you don’t agree on.

In an ideal world, we should teach children to become excellent communicators in expressing their thoughts and feelings without having tantrums and meltdowns. However, most of us haven’t necessarily had good role models when it comes to healthy communication and conflict resolution skills. But remember, it’s never too late! As cliche as it may sound it is the truth. These skills are learnable. Don’t be discouraged by your first, second, twentieth failed attempt at reframing. Like any other skill, it takes time, practice and patience to teach yourself reframing especially when it comes to conflict. Start in day to day neutral conversations. Start small then build onto your skills by trying them in moments of conflict. Keep practicing and one day you will notice how different your interactions feel!

Matleena Vanhanen is a licensed Counselling Psychologist with over 20 years of experience working in Europe and the Middle East. She has a practice of couples and individual therapy at the MapleTree Center in Dubai.

Dr. Ava Ghasemi (Holdich) is a licensed Psychologist with 11 years experience in the U.S., Canada and the Middle East. She has a practice of individual and couples therapy at the MapleTree Center in Dubai.

Articles on www.aureliapsychology.com may feature the advice of a licensed expert or other non-clinicians and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment from a trained professional. In an emergency, please seek help from your local medical or law enforcement services.


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