F is for Framing

Framing is one way of thinking about what we do when we ask a question or pose a problem in a certain way. For example, it’s often possible to frame the same question in ways which invite very different answers. This might be a matter of the wording of the question:

  • “Aren’t you looking forward to tonight?”
  • “Aren’t you just dreading tonight?”

Alternatively, it might be a matter of context, or what comes before the question.

  • “I love seafood. Do you serve lobster here?”
  • “I’m allergic to seafood. Do you serve lobster here?”

These are extreme examples, and it can be much more subtle. For example, encouraging gay, lesbian and bisexual people to come up can still, unwittingly, send the message that their sexuality is unusual or abnormal, because it embeds an assumption that if you haven’t come out, you’re straight. Not being aware of the way in which we frame our questions, and the assumptions which we embed in them, can lead to miscommunications. In particular, being given a fact and showing in your response that you have automatically framed this as ‘good news’ or ‘bad news’ can make it very hard for the messenger to disagree with you.

Sometimes it’s necessary to draw attention to the framing of issues. Some authors, for example, have chosen to write very dense, wordy, difficult prose, not because they couldn’t write in another style or because the ideas demand it, but because in writing in a way which demands attention, which calls attention to the writing itself as well as the ideas it is communicating, calls attention to the fact that all those ideas are themselves framed by the way they are written about. In other words, the piece of text is not a clear view of the world, a description of how things are, but is always no more than one, carefully framed, perspective. Think about the tricks which a camera can play – making something seem much larger or smaller by disguising the distances involved, making something finite seem endless by keeping the ends of it out of the frame. (I have, somewhere, a photograph of an endless school corridor. It wasn’t endless, although it sometimes felt like that, but it looks endless because of the way I framed the shot.)

In the same way, we can use language to re-frame a topic. A problem can be dissolved if it reframed as a strength (the classic “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” move). A opposition can be reframed as a co-operation (football teams are in competition, but it takes two of them to make a football match). It’s not always easy to see how to do this – it requires the ability to step back and think outside the current frame, which can be very difficult if we are attached to it for some reason, especially if in some way it is keeping us safe, or if we have never been outside it. It can be well worth it, however. Consider this example: a common framing of illness is of disease as the enemy, something which must be fought. It can be very difficult indeed to speak of illness otherwise, and people who do get pushback: you’re just giving up, don’t surrender to it, and so forth (all inside that same metaphor or framing device). But an illness like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, for which the only treatment is rest, cannot be fought, it must be accepted, welcomed, worked with, incorporated. And I suspect the same is true of many other things.

What in your life might benefit from reframing?


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