Have you encountered situations where you have observed or are dealing with two opposing positions that seem to be mutually exclusive and there seems to be no hope that they can be reconciled? Often it seems impossible to resolve because people get personally invested in their positions and to move would feel like “losing” or being “wrong”. Everyone wants to be “right” and “win.” Yet there may be no understanding of the reasons behind those positions either in simple everyday issues or complex project issues. Only when we gain that understanding can we find “win-win” rather than “win-lose” solutions. To demonstrate one process for finding win-win solutions we have created an animated video of a disagreement over an office environment situation. The video shows how using the method of issue framing and reframing reconciled seemingly mutually exclusive positions.

Framing and Reframing. As shown in the video, there were three basic steps involved in resolving the opposing positions using framing and reframing.

1. Framing the Issues. The issue is framed by defining the conflicting position or demand of each party and the related concern – close the window to avoid blowing the papers around versus open the window to avoid falling asleep in a stuffy room.

2. Reframing the Needs. The next step was to reframe the issue by identifying the needs that were underlying the position and concern of each party – STILL AIR needed in one case and FRESH AIR needed in the other case.

3. Resolution. After understanding each other’s needs, the two parties were encouraged to find options for a joint solution that would address each of their needs.  The effort was successful because the discussion moved away from meeting demands to satisfying needs.

Now let’s consider a more complex real-world situation involving getting permits needed to construct a large new dam and reservoir. The planners ran into conflicting positions of the Water Quality Agency and the Fish and Game Agency. The Water Quality Agency said all trees must be removed from the reservoir site. Fish and Game said all trees must remain. The issue was framed – trees must go versus trees must stay. The underlying needs were identified – the Water Quality Agency was concerned about leaching of contaminants from the trees into the water while Fish and Game was concerned about poor fish habitat. After reframing the issue by discussing their needs, the parties came up with a solution involving establishing shallow areas near the shore, planting grass in the shallow areas for fish habitat and clearing trees in the other areas of the reservoir to protect water quality. Things were looking up until the Health Department said the permit application was rejected because there can be no shallow areas. Oops – now an issue had surfaced that was framed as shallow areas vs no shallow areas! The reframing discussion determined the Health Department’s underlying need was mosquito control. The parties came up with a solution including the shallow area concept but stocking the reservoir with mosquito fish. All of the opposing positions were reconciled and the project was constructed.

Building a matrix showing positions, needs and solutions on a flip chart or white board as the framing/reframing discussion proceeds provides a useful tool. A completed matrix for the reservoir example is shown below. At the start of the discussion, only the parties involved (top row) and their positions (left hand column) are filled in. The discussion first defines the position and demands. Noting this in concise terms in the matrix keeps the group focused on addressing the issue of concern. In a similar manner, the information on each party’s underlying problem and need is added to the matrix as the discussion proceeds. Having this information in front of the group assists in developing solutions.

StepDiv. of Water QualityUS Fish and WildlifeHealth Dep.
Position/DemandRemove TreesKeep TreesNo shallow areas
Frame ProblemTrees degrade water qualityPoor fish habitatShallow areas breed mosquitoes
Reframe needNeed way to protect WQNeed way to provide habitatNeed way to control mosquitoes
SolutionRemove treesPlant grass in shallow areas along shore for habitatStock reservoir with Mosquito Fish

For complex issues and a larger number of parties involved this will probably be an iterative process, but the same steps can be followed and built upon to achieve resolution. This is a valuable tool for any project leader’s toolbox. One thing to consider, as project leader, if you are involved as one of the parties is to have neutral facilitator, who is not invested in the outcome, to facilitate this process.