My Leading Futurists LLC partner Jennifer Jarratt and I believe one of the most critical things we do for our clients is reframing. Over 22+ years working to be more effective as futurists, we’ve learned that truly helping people understand the future means not just reconceptualizing things (nearly any good business consultant does that) but connecting in meaningful ways to their worldview. Reconceptualizing can make an intellectual connection, but reframing can make a stronger, emotional connection.
That means helping people think about change from a personal, human, emotional perspective. Offering a compelling look at the future is not about explaining “how would that work?” It’s about answering “how would that affect me?”
The work of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at Berkley, has helped us surface and examine how we do that, why it matters, and how we can do it better. Lakoff’s book, The Political Mind, is particularly valuable in understanding the importance of frames and how people react to them.
Lakoff defines a frame as “a conceptual structure used in thinking.” [Link] He explains that it is the emotional content of a framing that connects most strongly to people.
In The Political Mind, Lakoff explains the centrality of framing in politics. While perhaps the stakes are higher in political battles than in exploring the future, we believe the ability of people to break through to new insights on the future is essential to having a successful future.
Let me share an example of reframing of the kind Lakoff explains so well. I mentioned this situation in a related reframing context in a previous post, but the case also distinctly highlights a central part of reframing: the power of an emotional hook in how something is framed.
The Janney Elementary/Tenleytown Branch library public private partnership (PPP) was an intense issue in my community in Washington DC over the past few years. It was a proposal to combine a commercial real estate development on Wisconsin Avenue, NW in Washington, DC with a redevelopment of the public branch library and adjacent public elementary school. The land to be used for the commercial development would have included the city’s land where the now-demolished library is intended to be rebuilt, and part of the adjacent elementary school property. The sites would have been joined and reworked, with a new library, retail space, apartments, and garage parking for the elementary school staff. The developer was to contribute to renovating and adding on to the 1925 elementary school building.
In our neighborhood debate, a group that opposed the PPP framed the core of the issue as a “land grab” with the city surrendering land to a private developer, irrevocably. There are detailed technical arguments that can be, and have been made on each side of the issue. It’s quite possible for pro-PPP people to explain the potential deal not as a land grab, but as a multi-million dollar benefit to an aging, over-crowded elementary school. But the “land grab” notion was a stronger framing than any that had come up from proponents of the PPP. It connects in people’s minds to stealing—in this case, a corporate entity, the real estate developer, in cahoots with the city government, stealing from our children.
What happens so often in political debates is that one side comes up with framing that resonates with people’s emotions well, and the other side tries to counter that framing with a technical discussion of facts and truths. This is what has happened in my neighborhood.
Emotion usually wins out over the facts. A few days ago (March 16, 2009) the city relented and killed further discussions of a PPP on the site. So, perhaps the opponents who framed this as a “land grab” won the argument with their well-framed opposition.
In exploring the future, we need not see framing a simply a crass appeal to emotions. We can see it as a way of more effectively breaking through to people’s consciousness with ideas about a changed world. In our thinking, then, we specifically put the emphasis on reframing—recasting the situation with a new way of looking at it that can alter how people think about the possible and desirable future. Sometimes that means showing a new side to an issue, balancing people’s fears with ideas that suggest how a big change could be a good thing.
Effective work in foresight then, means not only depending on technical explanations and a wholly logical appeal to people. That’s why I’ve written so extensively here about the importance of stories, the value of images, the power of other voices, among many others.
As Jennifer and I work further on our concepts around reframing, we’ll publish ideas here and at www.leadingfuturists.biz. We’d of course be delighted to hear your ideas about this and we’re ready to help you in your exploration of the future any time.
Here is my take on some people who are really good at reconceptualizing and reframing.
Previous post on reframing: Framing and reframing, part 1: our mental frames shape how we see things