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When choosing a frame for a picture, would you just pick up any? Probably not. You’d look at its size, the color, material, weight, and even the shape. All this so the frame can bring out the best in the picture.

Makes sense, right? Then why do we miss out on the impact of a frame, when it comes to our words?

In the book Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, the character Tom was often teased by his friends because he had to do chores like painting fences, while the rest of them played – a sad situation for a young boy. But, one day, Tom’s retort was, “It’s not every day a boy gets a chance to whitewash a fence.” Soon his friends were paying him to be able to take turns and paint that fence. They wanted in on the privilege of a task that initially seemed humiliating to them. All because Tom shifted the frame. He changed the lens through which his task was viewed – from a chore to an honor! See what we mean?

What is a frame then? It is the perspective or the emotional experience of a situation. For instance, a difficult task can be viewed as a learning opportunity. Framing a conversation is all about drawing maximum value from it. Which means, different people will relate to it differently because of the emotions a perspective evokes. Thus, reframing, like Tom did, is a powerful tool for persuading people to get on board with a given viewpoint.

How so? Take the hot button issue of same-sex marriage in America. Stanford researcher Robb Willer states that the different political positions can achieve common ground on this topic if the issue is framed for them in a way that speaks to their values. He found that conservatives are persuaded by a patriotism-based argument that same-sex couples are proud Americans who contribute to their economy. They were significantly less persuaded by the idea of legalized same-sex marriage for the pursuit of fairness and equality. That’s a stance more in sync with the liberals’ values. Same issue, different frames, unique responses.

If you reflect on the examples we’ve shared, you’ll notice that the power of a frame lies in its subconscious appeal. We are unaware of its effects. The frames we subscribe to might seem rational. But, they are actually mental shortcuts that preempt us to behave in specific ways, and these shortcuts are deeply embedded in morals, emotions, imagery, and past experiences. This has been tested.

In a study, participants were presented with brief passages about crime in a hypothetical city named Addison. For half of them, a few words were altered so the passage said that crime was a “beast preying” on Addison. For the other half, crime was described as a “virus infecting” the city. This reframe of words influenced people’s beliefs about the crime significantly. Those exposed to the “beast” metaphor believed that crime should be dealt with by using punitive measures, whereas those exposed to the “virus” supported reformative measures. Why do you think this happened?

If you’re wondering what this means for you, remember that when we try to convince people about our beliefs, we mostly speak from our frame. Pause for a second and think about the other person’s frame. Speak to what they care for. Get behind their perspective, and voila! You’ll have an ally.


Photo by pine watt on Unsplash