Framing the Debate

Almost every time I find myself in a discussion someone comes up with a catch-phrase or word image that captures the thinking of the group.  After the metaphor is first used, everyone follows suit and makes that word image a reference point for the rest of the discussion.  But not every catch-phrase works.

For some years, now, there has been a rousing debate among linguists and other scholars about the role of metaphor in politics and other forms of decision-making. George Lakoff is one of the main participants in this debate. Some of his work that has sparked controversy is in the field of political language (if you want to read about his political opinions go to this editorial), but the basic idea seems to apply well to negotiation. Dr. Lakoff has argued that the metaphors we use are not just about language, but reflect thought. For example, take the metaphor that importance=heaviness.  We might say “That was a heavy discussion” when we mean the discussion was important.  As proof of the hypothesis that the metaphors we use reflect our thoughts consider the experiment in which students were told a book was important and then asked if it was heavier than another (equally weighted) book.  The students believed the important book was heavier.

Even Lakoff’s critics seem to agree that there is something to his ideas (See the essay in The New Republic). Those critics seem to argue that the metaphors capture our thinking but don’t necessarily drive it.  As Nunberg said in that New Republic essay, we will have “a hard time packaging [our good ideas] unless [we] can do a better job confecting the wrapping paper.”

Thinking strictly about negotiations, we can say that it is important how we frame the conversation.  The most obvious example is whether we frame the bargaining as win-lose, us versus them, good versus bad, or as win-win, joint problem solving, or collaboration.  Sometimes we are so emotionally invested in the negotiation that it is hard to change our frame of mind to reflect collaborative versus combative language.  When that happens we may need to seek help from a mediator or negotiation coach.

In framing the negotiation it is important to describe the bargaining positively, but it is also important to couch our suggested solutions in compelling language that sets the stage for resolution.  We should use good wrapping paper for our packages.

For that reason, the metaphors we use are keys to success.  Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

  • Be careful to choose metaphors that do not cause offense.  Some of the things we say in the United States are freighted with negative meaning in other countries.  But even within our own culture there is a great deal of diversity and we should be sensitive to the values of others.
  • Plan the metaphors you are going to use.  One way to do this is to practice the negotiation with a colleague.  This kind of role-playing need not take long but it will give you a chance to try out some of the ways you want to package your argument or solutions. It is helpful to have time before the actual negotiation to reflect on what you might say.
  • Craft the metaphors you use to fit the context of the conversation.  This is a skill that takes practice and good listening.  Sometimes we are tempted to blurt out a catch-phrase or word image that seems funny or entertaining.  This might relieve tension, but it also might lead the discussion in an unwanted direction.
  • Build word images that point the conversation in the direction you want to go.  Keep it positive and especially let your metaphor show the other parties that you can see a way out of the dispute.
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