12.Aug.2016 Framing it Right

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What is Framing?

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A young priest asks his bishop whether he is allowed to smoke while praying. The answer is an emphatic no. A few days later, the priest sees an older colleague smoking and praying, and tells him what the bishop said. “That’s odd,” says the older priest, “I asked the bishop if it was okay to pray while smoking, and he said I could pray any time I liked!”

The two priests framed things in a very different way, but what they proposed was the same thing. We use the word framing because we see reality, and describe it to others, as if viewing a picture. We can never see or fully describe the real thing. We decide where to draw the frame, what parts to put in and to leave out, what parts to relegate to the background or place prominently in the foreground. Like a director using his fingers to frame a scene and work out how to set up his cameras, our choices about framing make all the difference to how we view the world.

The Evidence

Studies have shown this can make a real difference even in circumstances where we wouldn’t expect people to be distracted by semantics. Tversky and Kahneman (1981) framed a single problem in two different ways. They presented participants with an imaginary disease outbreak, which was expected to affect 600 people. Participants were asked to choose between two treatment programmes, which affected the people in different ways:

If they chose Programme A, 200 people would be saved.

If they chose Program B, there was a one-third probability that 600 people would be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved.

72 percent of participants chose Programme A, the other 28 percent Choosing Programme B.

They presented a second, separate group of participants with the choice between two slightly differently phrased programmes.

If they chose Programme C, 400 people would die.

If they chose Programme D, there was a one-third probability that nobody would die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people would die.

This time, 78 percent chose Programme D, and only 22 chose Programme C. The problem with this is that Programmes A and C are in fact identical, as are Programmes B and D. They’re just framed differently. But this different phrasing distracted people enough to change the majority preference.

So, the way we frame things is very important, but we often give it little thought. Two different types of phrasing that are crucial in our interactions with others at work and at home are problem framing and solution framing.

Problem Framing versus Solution Framing

When we talk about what’s wrong with our lives and our work, we are framing things in terms of problems. How often have you said, ‘I can’t do this’, or ‘I’m terrible at that’, or ‘I made a mess of this’? When we frame things in terms of the problem, we create a block that discourages us from finding a way to address the issue. If you can’t do something, the implication is that that’s the end of the matter. If you made a mess of something, you are saying nothing about how to clear the mess up or what you can learn for next time.

Solution framing focuses on how we can move forward, how we can address the situation positively. A solution frame for ‘I can’t do this’ might be ‘How can I make this easier to do?’, or ‘How can I get this done?’ For ‘I’m terrible at that’, we could substitute ‘How can I get better at that?’ or ‘How can I reduce the impact of how bad I am at that?’ And we could frame ‘I made a mess of this’ as ‘What can I learn from this experience?’ or ‘What’s the best I can make of the situation?’

Putting Framing into Action

This can seem like semantics, but the words we put on things define how we see them, and strongly influence the actions we take. Remember that in the disease study, people changed their opinions wholesale about the lives and deaths of 600 people, based only on the way options were phrased. Getting into the habit of framing things in terms of solutions can actually lead to more solutions being found. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t press home the gravity of the current situation by outlining the issue first, but if you feel the need to do this, consider building on it by moving quickly to the solution frame.

These examples focus on how you frame things to yourself, but as the young priest and Tversky and Kahneman found, some of the most powerful uses of framing are in how we put things when presenting them to others. If we use a problem frame when highlighting issues to colleagues or friends, it can sound like we’re moaning, and can get reactions anywhere along a spectrum from a joint moaning session to an indignant response to perceived criticism. If we frame the issue in terms of looking for a solution, however, we’re likely to achieve a much more productive response.

So the next time you are thinking about what’s wrong with a situation, or are intending to raise an issue or a problem, stop yourself for a moment and consider re-framing in terms of solutions, rather than focusing on problems.

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