Framing the Conversation: The Power of Initiative

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Who among us is not experiencing frustration with the nature of the debate about the future of our government tax system? Our tax, pensions, as well as the health of our whole economy hang in the balance, and we see a duel of extreme and simplistic statements about “job creators,” “becoming another Greece (or Europe),” “fiscal cliffs,” “entitlements,” and of course the “47 percent.” We all have our positions, but what scares me is the way that the framing of the conversation makes it impossible to move further. Of course, we know that resolution will likely include more money into government, some reform of the system, fairness, and the reining in of unsustainable promises that have been made. The problem is getting people to come together and look more deeply at the challenges from a broader perspective in order to craft a fair series of steps (maybe even half-measures) that can at least move us forward. Being right, it seems, is more important than finding an inclusive way to move toward a different place.

This government stalemate mirrors other deep divides we face. There is the Middle East, fair wages in companies, the role of marriage, paying medical costs, fairness in social media, royalties to artists, patents, education, competitiveness and other social issues. We see people invested in their position so deeply and emotionally that, to them, any shift in position is morally suspect. So how do we move forward?

In organizations and even families, as attempts are made to resolve issues, too often the interaction hardens rather than eases the process. In conversations I observe, the first step is often for people to look into themselves and define what they want, assuming that inner reflection will lead to an authenticity and willingness to learn and question. But the focus on inner experience first initially adds more volume to their moral or political beliefs, making them less open to hearing the other.

In many areas, we have a deep opinion about something, but not a clear sense of what this means in actuality. What would it look like if my position or the other position prevailed? What would happen? This weekend, watching the footage of the first same-sex military marriage in a military setting, I recalled the feelings and doom-saying that accompanied the debate on whether we should allow openly gay soldiers to serve and their impact on the military. I think that, in a debate, we are more sensitive to feelings of anxiety predicted by our fears or what will happen if the other side or position prevails than we are to experimenting and seeing what will really happen.

How, in a debate, do we deal with the anxiety that occurs when an advocate of our position frames the issue as a positive outcome versus a terrible alternative? The power to frame an issue with predictions of what will happen if we listen to the other side poisons the possibility of experimenting, expressing less than total confidence on one’s position or considering that the issue is actually much less controversial and polarized and that we could easily live with several gradations of what we want.

This hardening of our positions is evident in any situation where we are asked for our opinion. Who does not have an opinion on any issue? As we talk, don’t we often finding ourselves being more rather than less committed to it? I listen to meetings where everyone wants to participate and find that people express an opinion without any sense concerning how their opinion, if manifested in reality, will happen or who will make it happen.They don’t even realize when they are saying the same thing that others have said or what they are advocating. In workplace debates about what a company should do, for example, there are clear and deep positions, but not a clear sense of how it could be achieved .

I read about Walmart’s profits and low wages and benefits, and see clearly that it would be good if they were more responsive to employees. Yet the polarization of the debate makes it difficult to find incentives to help them make a choice to offer higher prices to the public in a competitive environment. The challenge is how to create engagement with a company over an issue rather than being “right,” confronting the issue and getting nowhere. A realization of the dilemma facing the company and a framing of the issue that allowed the company to bring its constraints to the table would make it easier to work with the issue. I have seen Walmart make some strides in sustainability and in other areas where they have come to see a path forward.

My position will strike many as being an apologia for conservatism, an abdication of morality for pragmatics, and it may be so. But I am not sure that people who can speak out about an issue and feel morally correct are having an impact in moving us out of a polarized state where each side moves further and further from each other. They feel better but does their voice have any impact? I am for the moral position of engagement and assuming that, in most cases, the people with another position are not bad, evil, selfish, or manipulative, but rather trying to make the best of what they have. Of course, there are situations where this is not the case and in those situations the engagement will not happen, but my default position is to seek out those who differ with me rather than avoid them.

I started with saying that the ways that an issue is framed organizes the conversation. That is where the power often lies in a negotiation. My suggestion is that, rather than looking only inward to define our sense of what is right, we need first to engage in a process of defining the issue in the broadest and clearest way, which as much as possible avoids rigid moral positions and allows for engagement. This is so in global warfare where the two sides who engage have both done things that are immoral and destructive, in the name of good, and the negotiation for the future cannot begin without the settling of who was more righteous.

The bottom line is that as change agents in our organizations and communities, we have to step back from our focus on our own positions and look at how an issue is framed, taking the time and directing the conversation to how to define and set up the discussion of how to move forward, rather than fighting over two opposing views that have no real meeting place.

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

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