Mediation: Is Reframing Honest?

Let’s talk about two important features of mediation, and see if they’re compatible with each other. Mediators take both these things pretty seriously, so we better hope they work together. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.

Honesty is a bedrock of all kinds of alternative dispute resolution. People are human and we sometimes prevaricate or shade or hide,… or flat-out lie. We can expect some of that when people are talking about something important to them or when they fear loss. But one of the underpinnings of mediation is to encourage both sides to be as honest as they can, with the other party, the mediator and themselves. Lasting agreements can’t be made unless everyone knows the same set of facts about the dispute, and everyone knows what’s truly important to both sides.

Reframing is a big concept in ADR, especially in mediation. The mediator restates what someone says in a different way. The idea is not just to make sure everyone understands what a party has just said. Reframing also allows the mediator to put the party’s idea into more palatable, productive wording. Perhaps it is less confrontational. Maybe it is more clear or distinct, or even succinct. Maybe the reframing is to make the party’s ideas more direct, more focused or more on-point. For example, a divorce mediator might reframe, “There is not a chance in hell I’m moving out of our house” into “There is a value to you in staying in your home.” In a commercial mediation, suppose the mediator hears Ms. Smith say, “You’re crazy if you think I would ever do business with that thief again.” The mediator might reframe that by saying to Ms. Smith, “You want assurances that all the agreements will be carried out and Ms. Jones has the ability to do what she says she’ll do.”

Are these two key elements of mediation — honesty and reframing — compatible with each other? Put more starkly, is reframing honest? If the mediator were trying to get a party to say something that was inconsistent with what the party genuinely thinks or feels, one might say that that is not honest. What’s important, though, is that reframing isn’t used to put untrue words in anyone’s mouth. It is used for quite the opposite purpose.

Reframing is explicitly designed to give parties a way of describing things, including the heart of their disputes, in ways that they themselves didn’t initially express them. As a result, sometimes when the mediator reframes something, a party will say, “Don’t put words in my mouth!” If that ended the conversation, then you can see that people might think that reframing is dishonest. But that’s not the end of the conversation. When a good mediator hears that, he or she knows that there has not been good communication and there is a lack of understanding at the table. “Don’t put words in my mouth” is a trigger to a deeper conversation in which the parties and the mediator work together exactly for the purpose of avoiding putting the wrong words in anyone’s mouth, or ears.

Look back at our examples. What about the divorcing spouse who wants to stay in the house? Reframing that idea into the house being an important value to that spouse is literally true. But it also allows the spouse to keep things in perspective. If selling the house would allow the spouse to buy something else that was of more value to him or her, the reframing gives him or her the chance to weigh the options without confusion. Ms. Smith’s animus toward Ms. Jones may be well-founded, but if there’s a sensible business deal to be made, reframing the personal dislike into a statement of the neutral business concepts that will make Ms. Smith comfortable, the two parties may be able to make a business deal that is profitable to both of them.

One should never reframe to a dishonest point. Reframing, at its best, is to confirm that the mediator (and the other party, assuming he’s listening) understands exactly what the speaker said and meant, but phrases it in a way that both parties find more useful toward the mutual goal of finding workable solutions. Proper reframing is honest, and it helps. Our happy ending.