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Avoid Taking Sides by Reframing Conflicts
by Kevin Quinn


Facilitators need ways to move through conflict and disagreements without judging or arbitrating. "Reframing" - inviting parties to see a disagreement in a different way - is a simple, useful way to resolve disputes without losing your neutrality.

In a session I was facilitating, an older, more experienced woman was arguing with an angry young man. They disagreed about what to discuss at an upcoming meeting of their professional organization. Their conflict was as old as human conversation; the impatient reformer versus the voice of experience. The argument was heating up.

I turned to the flip chart, and scribed both his topic and her topic on the flip chart page. Then I turned to them and said: "I am sure relieved that we've solved our major problem."

They stopped arguing, looked at me like I was mad, and asked "how have we solved our problem?"

"Well, our major problem has been finding enough topics of interest. But you have been passionately discussing these two topics for some minutes now. Sounds like you are committed enough to present these at our meetings."

"Yes," said the young man.

"Yes of course," said the woman. "But we still disagree on which topic should be discussed."

I smiled and said "The only thing you have to agree on now is who will present their topic at the next meeting, and who will present at the one following it!"

I had used the tool of "reframing" to help participants to see their world in a different way. I had offered them the reframe from being "in conflict" to being "passionately committed to their topics."

Another winning reframe is to shift to the client perspective. "I'm right," says the service manager. "No, I'm right," says the sales manager. "What would the client say we should do, in this situation?" you ask. You have reframed the argument to a customer viewpoint. According to the University of Colorado's Conflict Research Consortium, the most useful reframes for facilitators are as follows:

Interest-Based Reframing: change the conflict from talking about positions, to talking about the underlying interests. Often, interests are compatible, even when positions are not. For example, in the video shown in our Facilitation workshop, two groups inside an organization vie for the same space for their departments. But by the end of an expert facilitation, they realize that their INTEREST is to ensure everyone has enough space, wherever that can be provided.

Fairness-Based Reframing: help the parties approach the conflict as an effort to obtain what is fair. Ask the group to define what fairness means. Then help them work out what would be fair to all parties. For example, a group of staff nurses were getting angry about the amount of time one of their team got off to go to her master's courses every week. The facilitator probed to find out the group's concern - the others didn't want the courses, but wanted to be able to leave work on time at least one day a week. The facilitator suggested reframing the criticism of the time off to a new rule about fairness in leaving on time. As a result the group religiously has protected everyone's right to leave exactly on time, at least once a week.

Integrative (or Win-Win) Reframing: Groups often convince themselves that an issue is "win-lose" - one side must lose for the other to win. In Win-Win Reframing, the facilitator helps the parties try to redefine the problem in a win-win way. This can either be done by expanding the resources from which they are drawing (sometimes referred to as "expanding the pie") or redefining what they want so that everyone can have what they want at the same time, even with limited resources.

For example, I facilitated two project teams who were vying for a single HTML programmer. They wanted me to help decide which team would get the programmer, and which project would be delayed. Instead, I suggested a win-win frame, and the two teams brainstormed a solution. The HTML programmer would advise and oversee the work of one of the systems-savvy people on the first team. At the same time, she would work for the other team nearly full-time. Both projects moved ahead - clearly a win-win for them and their organization.

Finding and Borrowing Eloquent Statements: sometimes when parties are deadlocked and beginning to attack one another, I recall for them the movie Gandhi. The young Gandhi is asked by militants if he is prepared to join them in fighting back against their oppressors. He says: "I am certainly willing to die for our cause, but I am not willing to kill for it." This reminds the group that there are non-violent ways to end disputes, and typically they begin to cool down.

Whether you use one of these methods or your own "on the spot" reframes, your ability to treat problems with framing will help the group to help itself - and that's the essence of facilitation!


Treating Framing Problems, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado (at


The Author


Kevin Quinn is an Associate of Facilitation First, a company that specializes in providing professional meeting facilitation and training. Visit for more information.

Many more articles in More Effective Meetings in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2006 by Kevin Quinn. All rights reserved.

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