"Framing" in Communications & Conflict
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

The term "framing" is used in communications to represent an aspect of communication that provides a context for discussion or negotiations. (see also the piece on Framing a Decision for a different use of the term). Framing involves selecting and highlighting certain aspects of a subject while excluding or minimizing others. Frequently, different parties will believe and/or advocate rather different frames for the same situation.

For example, here are three different "frames" for the same political situation (the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians). The first two represent possibly typical frames from the two sides; the third is an example of a frame that might be offered to try to help bridge the gulf between the two sides and to help them move more constructively in managing their conflict.

  1. This is land settled by our ancestors thousands of years ago, under direction from God, resettled by our parents over half a century ago, and developed and improved by our people since. This land is vital to the protection of our people from the criminal terrorist attacks of the Palestinians, who the Palestinian leaders have refused to control. We must never give up one inch of this land!
  2. This is land inhabited by our ancestors for thousands of years. This land is vital to the development of a viable Palestinian homeland, which should be an independent Palestinian state. There can be no peace until we regain our rightful possession of this land!
  3. This is very special land, characterized by thousands of years of history involving ancestors of you both. It has historical, religious, and political importance for each of you. You both have a sincere desire to find a solution to the conflict that stops the bloodshed and provides a basis for your peoples to live in peace.

Framing in the communications sense provides opportunities to help others make sense of events, to explain the reasoning supporting decisions. Framing increases our chances of getting others' agreement and commitment. There are opportunities to reframe the negative framing practiced by those who resist change in any organization. Skillful framing can be used to create a bridge between parties in a conflict and help them move forward toward solutions. Framing requires insight, which includes both a clarity of purpose and a thorough understanding of those we are trying to influence. Values (ours and those of the others involved) play an important role in the kind of framing that we do and in the way that our frames are perceived. Intention is important since framing can be used to manipulate or deceive. Hopefully, our values oppose this.

A key function of leadership is the management of meaning. Effective leaders present images that grab our attention and interest. They use language in ways that make it easy and compelling for us to view events from their frames of reference. Leaders frame their vision in ways that help organizational members make sense of the vision, embrace it, see its relevance to their responsibilities, identify next steps in implementing the vision, and feel enthusiasm for it. They communicate with frames and images that build upon each other to construct a reality to which we then want to respond.

Leadership includes managing meaning, which requires skill and risk-taking. Consider, for example, how gifted artists or photographers show us their views of the world - they focus their work and frame their subjects to capture a viewpoint for others to understand and appreciate. Just like an artist or photographer, when we select a frame for a subject, we choose which aspects or portion of the subject we will focus on and which we will exclude. When we choose to highlight some aspect of our subject over others, we make that aspect more noticeable, more meaningful, and more memorable to others. Our framing adds emphasis or approaches the subject in unique ways. For this reason, frames determine which issues or problems people notice, how they understand and remember issues, and how they evaluate and act upon them. Frames exert their power, not only through what they emphasize, but also through what they omit.

Effective framers know the perspective of their audience and take seriously the question, "For whom am I trying to manage meaning?" Effective framers make sure that the listeners do not have to ask "How does this apply to me?"

Effective leaders manage the context of communications and decisions. Context is defined by those elements that shape how people think and what they expect. These elements tend to take on a gestalt quality, and are seen as a unified whole. It is vital to be sensitive to context. Particularly important is taking the time to know the culture, the business environment, and surrounding events. This requires acquiring a certain base knowledge and then constantly keeping abreast of changes. "Once one accepts the importance of the personal, subjective, and political components of organization life, one then realizes that in an organization few behaviors stand on their own -- most require an interpretation - and context is a word that characterizes the frame of reference that underlies any particular interpretation. ...context is the root of an individual's organizational power." {Culbert & McDonough (1985), p.23-24} [Also see this book regarding the related construct "alignment."]

There are various tools for framing, in addition to usual dialogue, including metaphors, symbols, allusions, contrast, and stories. An appendix at the end of this note discusses these briefly.

Even an otherwise good attempt at framing can be undermined by sending mixed messages. Mixed messages involve contradictions in our words, or between our words and our other communications and behavior, or between our words and others' expectations. One of the hazards of using the tools mentioned in the previous paragraph is their potential for creating mixed or variable meanings.

Effective framing is a necessary and powerful skill in communications and in leadership - a skill that is both critical and complex. Fortunately, we can improve our skills in this area, with attention and effort over time.

{Much of this material was adapted from Gail T. Fairhurst & Robert A. Sarr (1996), The art of framing: Managing the language of leadership, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Samuel A. Culbert & John J. McDonough (1985), Radical management: Power politics and the pursuit of trust, NY: The Free Press; and Ralph L. Keeney (1992), Value-focused thinking: A path to creative decision making, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. I highly recommend reading all three.}


In addition to regular dialogue, some of the communication tools that can be useful in framing are: metaphors, symbols, allusion, contrast, and stories. Some of the hazards of using these tools are: their potential for creating mixed or variable meanings; they may mask important primary meanings; the listeners may not understand the ideas or phrases used as references; and the tools may appear or be manipulative, resulting in negative back-lashes. Despite these potential problems, which should be minimized with appropriate intentions and actions, it is useful to review some of these potential tools.


* A word or phrase meaning one thing used in place of another to suggest an analogy or likeness between them. If a leader wants to make something clearer and more vivid, he/she draws into the communication, if only by a single word or two, a concrete, readily understood image that brings to mind some qualities to be connected with the situation or object or person or abstract idea that needs illustration. For example: "selling and buying are a pitched battle - the buyer erects her/his sales resistance, much like a stockade in Indian country, while the seller tries to tear it down." Metaphors can make abstract ideas concrete, complex ideas simple, unfamiliar ideas more comprehensible. Further, metaphors evoke mental images, and mental images often have powerful emotional qualities.


* Symbols are metaphors whose associative meaning is more or less permanently fixed. They are important in communication and framing because they can be used to bear the full meaning of a passage rather than to act as accessories, as other metaphors often do. Symbolism, skillfully used, is far more effective than a bald literal statement: (a) symbols, as other kinds of metaphor, call forth an emotional reactions by way of sensuous imagery, and (b) most symbols have figured in literature and communications for centuries, and are surrounded by an aura of associations that evoke reminiscences of many past connections and connotations. For example, the use of a river as a symbol of the eternal flux of life, of the absence of anything really permanent and substantial in our human existence, goes all the way back to Plato, and countless writers have used it since.

Some of the common symbols are: (a) gold or golden - symbol of wealth, happiness, enduring, excellence; (b) star - symbol of remoteness, purity, permanence; (c) crossroads - a choice between two or more courses of action - usually a critical decision. For example, in a mission statement: "Our mission is to provide the gold standard of excellence in..."


* A reference to specific places, persons, literary passages, or historical events that have come to "stand for" a certain idea. For example, "The new owner of the company mistakenly thought that bread and a circus would distract the employees from the fundamental disasters that the company faced (in which the allusion is to the device by which many of the Roman emperors tried to keep their rebellious subjects' minds off their woes).


Stories or illustrations have a long, wonderful history over all of recorded history (and probably much before this). Many cultures lacking a written language or convenient means of preserving written records have preserved vital history, traditions, and ideas through oral stories. Many of the greatest teachers have taught primarily through use of stories that were relevant to and touched their listeners. Great leaders have used stories - past and potential - to communicate their ideas and visions. Stories frame a subject by example. They attract attention and can build support and rapport. Current leaders would do well to make extensive use of relevant stories in their communications. Some can be wonderful, but other can be rather simple, e.g., "When I first joined this organization I .... and I thought.... however, I now have begun to realize that... because of experiences such as this one last month..."

...and one to avoid

"Spin" is a label for a type of framing that has been used especially in connection with public figures and events in recent years - primarily in negative terms. This concept or technique tends to be associated with extensive (often untrue or inappropriate) efforts to frame a situation or subject in a primarily positive or primarily negative way. It is used often to reveal or suggest an opponent's strengths or weaknesses (without any attempt to provide a balanced critique or encourage a dialogue). Although "spin" may provide short-term tactical advantages, I believe that it often will fail to provide lasting benefits and may produce significant negative backlash reactions. I think there are better alternatives - both ethically and tactically.

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Last modified September 17, 2009 Copyright 1984-2009 Rex Mitchell