Process Frames

Robert Gardner

Current Implications

In the last years of the Obama administration, I used to frequently quote then Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, who said he rejected the notion of "compromise." In an interview shortly before becoming speaker, he said on CBS's 60 minutes, "I am not going to compromise on my principles, nor am I going to compromise the will of the American people."1 He followed that by saying he wanted, instead, to find "common ground,2" although most of the time, his actions seemed to suggest that any common ground would be found by the Democrats giving up their principles and going along with Boehners'.  

Refusing to compromise was a process or conflict-management frame. He came to the conclusion that more was to be won by holding firm to his positions, using distributive (also known as positional, or win-lose) bargaining instead of interest-based, integrative, or win-win negotiation approaches.  In the Frontiers Seminar, Guy refers to this as "power-over governing.

An even more striking process frame was asserted after Trump was elected President by liberal movie mogul Michael Moore, who announced he was "in a take-no-prisoners mode," (which alludes to the approach to war when enemies are simply killed, not captured alive). By this Moore was referring to his upcoming one-man, anti-Trump Broadway show which he hopes will "'destabilize' Trump's presidency and his administration through satire"3 

Clearly, both these men are what Gardner calls "confrontors," and their process framing makes them unwilling, and most likely unable, to consider more conciliatory approaches to their conflict. They are not alone.  Confrontational conflict management frames seem to be the norm of the Trump Presidency...on both sides of the aisle. The result has been a highly polarized and escalated conflict that has made the U.S. Federal Government highly ineffective. 

--Heidi Burgess, June 2017

1Ben Armbruster. "I 'Reject the Word' Compromise" Think Progress. Dec. 13, 2010.


3 Travis M. Andrews. "'In a take-no-prisoners mode,’ Michael Moore announces one-man, anti-Trump Broadway show" Washington Post, May 2, 2017.

July 2003, Current Implications Added by Heidi Burgess in June, 2017.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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