Framing / Reframing

Framing / Reframing

Heidi Burgess

Updated May 2013



Framing is the thought process people use to define a situation and decide how they are going to deal with it. Reframing is doing this over again in a different way: – for example, deciding a conflict can be approached in a positive (or "win-win") way, rather than a negative (or "win-lose") way.


Anyone in a conflict situation.


Conflict scholars use the term "framing" to mean the process of describing and interpreting an event. The way one frames a conflict is based on what has happened to that person (or group of people) in the past, what values are important to them, and whether they see the situation as a threat or a potential benefit. All of one's knowledge and life experiences serve as a background upon which any new event is interpreted. This background forms part of one's "frame."


For example, at the beginning of the second US-Iraq war, President George W. Bush and many Americans saw the war as a necessary step to eliminate a dangerous tyrant (Saddam Hussein) who was threatening both his own people and other nations with weapons of mass destruction.  Others, including some in the US and many abroad, framed the US attack on Iraq as unlawful, foolhardy, and unjustified.  These different frames were discussed extensively both inside and outside the White House and Congress in late 2002 (leading up to the initial US invasion of Iraq in March 2003), but the necessary war frame was the view that prevailed at the time.  Ten years later, many Americans have revised (reframed) their view, now believing that it was indeed a foolhardy and probably unjustified war that failed to accomplish the goals intended and cost both countries an enormous amount more than either gained.

Another example is a community dispute over the construction of a new homeless shelter. Some people might see a shelter as being an advantage to the community, and advocate putting it downtown, believing that it would be most accessible to the homeless in that location. Others, however, might see it as a blight on the neighborhood, and want to push it as far out of town as possible. Such disputes are often best approached by getting both sides to sit down together, to air their issues and concerns, and to develop a new view of the homeless and their needs. (This is reframing.) Then a solution might be obtainable that meets the needs and concerns of most citizens better than any scenario developed initially.


The way one frames a conflict is important for many reasons. For one, it determines whether a situation is seen as a conflict at all. If one person makes a rude comment to another person, the recipient of the comment may take offense (thus framing the situation as a conflict) while another might just ignore it, or laugh about it.

Secondly, one's frame determines what one will do about a situation. If a situation is considered unimportant, it will probably be ignored. If the conflict is considered important, however, the people involved need to decide how they are going to handle it. If they think it is a resolvable problem, they may try to talk about it informally or try to negotiate a solution. If they think it is only resolvable by force, then they are likely to use that approach, as occurred in Iraq.


Often disputants frame conflicts in adversarial or win-lose terms. They assume that the only way to get what they want is if the other party does not get what he or she wants. Rather than seeking a win-win solution, they therefore seek ways to build their power so that they can force the other side to give in. When both sides do this, the inevitable result is escalation, a hardening of positions, an increased danger of destructive confrontation (perhaps even violence) and a much diminished possibility of solving the problem. By reframing the conflict in a win-win or mutually beneficial way, the conflict can often be handled much more constructively. While such reframing is not always possible, often it is, especially with the help of a trained intermediary working with the parties. But even without intermediaries, if people focus on the way they are framing a problem, they will often realize that another approach might allow them to confront the conflict in a much  more constructive way.

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