Colin Rule: Positive Reframing in Political Conversations: Avoiding the Race to the Bottom

By Colin Rule

Oct. 23, 2022

My great uncle, Gordon Wade Rule, was the Chief Contractor for the U.S. Navy for more than twenty years in the 1960s and 70s. He did a lot of high stakes negotiating during that period, from aircraft carriers to Trident submarines. His stakeholders ranged from Senators to Admirals (Rickover was one of his trickiest adversaries) to massive defense contractors. He consolidated his decades of experience into a short book called The Art of Negotiation, which he donated to his country. While some of his recommendations may seem a little dated when held up to modern negotiation theory, the heart of his argument is dead on: do your homework, be committed to the truth, build trust with the other side, and only make good agreements (e.g. agreements that work for both sides).

If you were to take a negotiation training at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard, those points would fit right into the curriculum. In fact, the tips you get from many negotiation and conflict resolution professionals may seem somewhat obvious: focus your energy on the problem to be solved, not on criticizing the people you’re negotiating against. Listen closely to the other side, both to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying. Look for areas where there is mutual benefit, and build a path to agreement. Start with small successes/agreements and then work up to the harder ones. I’ve had people say to me, isn’t that all just common sense?

Well, sure. All of that advice can seem pretty straightforward to someone looking into a dispute from the outside. But when you’re inside a dispute, that advice can be extremely hard to put into practice. When we feel we’ve been wronged, a different set of ideas pop into our head: be aggressive. Push the other side to bend to our will. Threaten and saber rattle. Take stands on principle and refuse to back down, so as to get as much value as possible. Be inflexible to force the other side to agree to your terms.

Research shows these approaches are not very effective. Bullheadedness on one side creates bullheadedness on the other side. The best negotiations build trust over time and create value for both sides. But the aggressive, fixed-pie, take-no-prisoners approach has a long history, and it’s remarkably resistant to evidence-based criticism. As the former occupant of the White House demonstrates, people observing this distributive approach seem to feel it represents strength and power — even though the results are demonstrably inferior to integrative techniques.

The challenge comes when you want to negotiate in a value-creating, integrative way, but the other side wants to bully and posture to force you to bend to their will. As we discussed before, no one wants to bring a knife to a gun fight. There can be a race to the bottom when one or the other side demonstrates a willingness to go low. 

Negotiating with a bully who wants to push you to bend to their will can make you frustrated and angry — and getting you angry is part of why their strategy can work. Once you get angry, you may make unwise decisions motivated by emotion. If a bully gets you emotional through threats and insults, you may start to sling some threats and insults of your own, which gives the bully more fodder to criticize your intentions and wind you up further. They can also use your behavior to justify their aggressive approach to outsiders, saying: “See, we can’t negotiate with this person. They’re participating in bad faith — look at these threats and insults. We’ve got to force them to do what we want, no compromise.”

Hence our current moment. It’s true that many people are frustrated and angry, and that anger makes them want to lash out. But the question must be: what outcome do we want to achieve? And do these behaviors help or hinder our efforts to achieve that outcome? And are they making the problem worse?

It can feel good to see people expressing frustration that you yourself feel. But in many cases, those cri de cœur play right into the hand of the other side. Meeting anger and bullying with more anger and bullying digs the hole deeper. It’s not easy to confront bad behavior with restraint, but it’s vital if we’re going to try to rebuild some of the trust that we’ve lost in our society. We can have our “at long last, have you no sense of decency” moment without resorting to profanity, threats, and insults. They say what you fear you become, and that is what the anger trap can do to you. The only way to win is not to play.

One of the core skills in the mediator’s tool box is a technique called reframing. The famed psychiatrist Milton Erickson described reframing as a technique “…to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally well, or even better, and thereby changes its entire meaning.” Put more simply, reframing helps people see something from a different perspective. 

A very experienced mediator told me once that mediation is “benevolent manipulation,” and that is kind of what reframing is: it’s urging the parties toward a particular perspective that makes a mutually agreed upon solution possible. Mediators are trained to use something called positive reframing, helping the parties envision and develop mutually acceptable solutions. Once you know what reframing is, you see it everywhere.

But not all reframing is positive. Unfortunately, most of the reframing I see in the media is negative reframing. Media figures can use reframing to make their opponents look silly or insensitive. Often a more complex argument is reframed into a simpler proposition which is easily rebutted or delegitimized. Any cursory look at our media will find this technique depressingly commonplace.

Actually listening to someone you disagree with is hard — it’s much easier to mis-hear them and then argue with that straw man instead. Calling the other side biased is a common strategy in doing this negative reframing. If someone makes a nuanced point on cultural differences in the workplace, and the response is to (inaccurately) frame the point as racially insensitive, then the discussion immediately runs aground. Once the discussion is framed in that way (i.e. “you are a racist”), agreement is extremely unlikely.

David Brooks, a conservative, once said about Barack Obama, “…what he’s offering is the ability to see all sides of an issue — and I disagree with him. And we’ve had many conversations, and he sees the best side of my argument and then he reflects it back.” This is the kind of positive reframing we need more of, both on the right and on the left. A knee-jerk accentuation of the most inflammatory component of a counterpart’s argument may make it easier for your side to “win,” but a deliberate attempt to understand and engage with the strongest part of your counterpart’s argument will bring us closer to true deliberative dialogue.

Utilizing positive reframing in your political conversations — e.g. demonstrating that you have really heard the core contentions of the other side, and that you are willing to engage with the strongest part of their argument — is unusual these days. But in my experience, when you do it, the response from the other side is usually surprise, gratitude, and a more open mind.