Process Frames

Robert Gardner

July 2003

"'To a hammer all the world is a nail...' To a mediator it's a potential collaborative process..." -- Guy and Heidi Burgess

Frames are psychological lenses or assumptions that affect how people see and interpret the world around them. Process or conflict-management frames are the assumptions people make about the right -- or best -- way to approach a dispute. Some people, for example, are avoiders: their primary process frame is withdrawal or conciliation (i.e., "Go along with the other side whenever possible; when it isn't, just leave and get out of the situation"). Others are negotiators or mediators: they try to work out deals. Others are confrontors: they take a more adversarial stance and try to win. Whether one sees negotiation, arbitration, protest, or military action as the best strategy to achieve their goals depends partly on the situation, and partly on one's process or conflict-management frame.

What Exactly are Process / Conflict-Management Frames?

A frame is essentially a lens through which individuals perceive, interpret, and respond to a particular situation. Just as one puts a frame around a picture to crop out irrelevant or unnecessary features, people also use interpretive devices (which the conflict-resolution field calls frames) to crop out what is perceived to be irrelevant or unnecessary information. Frames also affect our judgement of a situation. Just as some people like one picture more than another, frames cause us to prefer one course of action more than another.

Additional insights into process frames are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Why Do These Frames Matter?

Certain conflict-resolution processes may be better suited to reach a particular outcome, while competing strategies may lead to unwanted or undesirable outcomes. Because it would take too much time and energy to explore in detail each and every option, conflict-management frames allow people to look at their preferred outcome and eliminate certain processes or procedures from their consideration.

For example, in an environmental dispute over a proposed logging plan that would clear-cut five thousand acres of old growth forest, one environmental group might try negotiation in an attempt to reduce the number of acres to be cut. Another might might see logging as non-negotiable, so they would go to court to try to stop any logging from happening. A third, more radical group, might not trust the court, preferring to take more direct action to stop any logging. They might, for instance, sit in or chain themselves to trees to block the loggers while gaining publicity and, in theory, public support for their views.Through their respective frames, each group would likely eliminate choices that would involve giving up or giving in (in their view) to the opposing parties. Using the concept of framing allows analysts to explain why groups with similar interests and values (such as pro-environmental groups) could come to radically different conclusions about the best course of action when confronting a particular dispute. This perspective on frames is also helpful for evaluating whether and to what extent an individual disputant may become involved in a conflict and the course of action they are likely to pursue to achieve their desired outcome.

Frames as Limits

The most important insight gained from the process/conflict-management framing perspective is that these frames tend to limit an individual's ability to examine alternative options fairly and to determine which are most likely to be effective in particular situations. When one frames the conflict through one particular set of conflict-resolution lens, one tends to ignore, overlook, or criticize competing solutions without giving them the careful evaluation they might merit.

Use the following to cite this article:
Gardner, Robert. "Process Frames." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

Additional Resources