Reframing issues is the key to a successful debate. Great orators know how to take an issue, depersonalise it, frame it in the context they wanted and then argue their case using logical argument within that frame without us even knowing.

Ronald Reagan did it, John Kennedy did it. Who can forget his speech to congress in which he said in reference to the US national goals with regard to space, “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”.

The words were uttered at the end of a speech to congress on “Urgent National Needs”. Kennedy was asking for additional funds for a wide range of measures whilst the US was in recession, with a budget deficit. He reframed what could have been seen as a dire situation for the US into one of hope. He chose the frame of the future rather than the past. He was reframing issues as he argued logically about what was required to progress to national goals rather than argued about how the US had got to where they were.

Many of the “tabloid” news and current affairs programmes successfully use reframing issues to build conflict to get ratings. Watch the US version of Fox News and you will see many “political commentators” reframe issues, words and even body language to be able to argue in the context in which they are not only strong but they know will build conflict between other panellists or viewers.

In his first four years as President, Michelle Obama’s gesture to her husband was mentioned as a possible “terrorist fist jab”. A few simple words in passing introducing a segment where a body language expert attempted to interpret the gesture, neatly reframed a simple isolated hand gesture into something possibly sinister.

Reframing issues in negotiating and conflict management

Reframing issues is a key skill in negotiating. Reframing the positions people hold to their interests is the precursor to achieving a collaborative negotiation. For example, in the nineties the Hawke-Keating government reframed the positions of unions towards immediate wage increases to their interests in having their members cared for over their lifetime by compulsory superannuation.

Reframing issues is a key skill in conflict management For example, many community issues are framed as a debate. Consider a community group which wants to stop a development and explains their position as a choice; “Should we allow a quarry to be developed or save the .”

This is a bipolar statement of positions.

Reframing substitutes closed bipolar questions with an open question. For example, “How can we develop the quarry and save the “.

By replacing “Should we?” with a “How can we?” the disputing parties are moved from debating the relative merits of their positions to a common interest. By reflecting the key interests of the stakeholders, the reframed issue encourages collaboration and defines what must be satisfied for the issue to be resolved.

Reframing issues in innovation and problem solving

Reframing issues is also a key skill in innovation and problem identification and problem solving. Changing the frame opens up possibilities which cannot be easily seen within the previous frame. Would the US have ever gone to the moon within the frame of recession and uncertainty facing the world after the Korean War and during the Vietnam War?

Reframing issues in managing change

It is also an important skill when introducing and managing change.

George P. Lakoff is a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He provides us with a method for reframing issues:

  1. Pick out the relevant core values of an issue
  2. Write down how your position follows those values
  3. Articulate the facts and their consequences within this moral framing
  4. Define an “us and them” mentality within this moral frame

Take the example of Carbon Emissions trading. The current debate in Australia is still mired around the impact on individuals, particularly those belonging to working families doing it “tough” with particular reference to petrol prices. This is a neat frame that makes it impossible to articulate why the energy cost of operation for all industries, including transport, must reflect its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Almost all people are part of a “working family” and rapid increases in energy prices impact everyone’s budget making it feel like it is “tough” as they readjust their budget.

However, the issue can be reframed following Professor Lakoff’s method. For example:

Humans have a responsibility as the most intelligent life form to protect the planet for future generations. Further, we have direct accountability for correcting errors we have made that threaten the future of the planet.

All industries large and small, therefore, should be encouraged, in an equitable manner, to reduce their reliance on carbon usage. Favouring one industry over another now will distort the future usage of carbon and limit the forces of innovation that are required to reduce our total reliance on carbon.

If we allow distortions to develop now, other lobby groups will be encouraged to seek dispensation. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to morally deny one interest group over another. The end result is, at best, likely to be that our response to global warming will be piecemeal, slow and driven by sectional interests rather than the needs of future generations.

Transitioning from a high carbon society to a low carbon society will be difficult for all. Some groups will need assistance in transitioning. That can be done successfully outside of an emissions trading scheme. However, those who advocate that the effect of an emissions trading scheme should be compromised by designing distortions into the scheme risk hurting the very people they intend to protect. It is the poor who will lose the most from the effects of climate change as they will not have the resources of the rich to combat its effects.

We are morally obliged to protect all our people and our children’s children. Shirking our responsibility to make carbon intensive processes more expensive is shirking our moral duty.

When managing change, it is incumbent on us as leaders to determine the right frame for the change and articulate our arguments with moral authority within that frame. This is how hearts and minds are won.

We must use the full range of communication tools. Facts are used to reinforce the legitimacy of our frame. Emotion is used to reinforce the morality of our frame. Symbols are used to improve the perception and immediate recall of our frame.

Communicating change invariably creates opposition to change. People will attempt to reframe our arguments. They will use either values or their position/interest to reframe our argument. At times the values reframing will constitute a personal attack.

However, if the goal of change is clear and the relevant core values associated with that goal are clear we are in a strong position to reframe their arguments back to our frame. If we spend time framing our position with moral authority and communicating it using facts, emotion and symbols, we too, shall go to our moon.