Frame of Reference in Conflict Situations

Frame of reference in conflict situations represented by three people pulling a rope against one other person

Today, I would like to discuss the frame of reference in relation to conflict resolution and mediation. I will start with a brief discussion of what a frame of reference is and then move on to how its importance is realized in conflicts.

A frame of reference is “a person’s subjective reality, shaped by his or her particular experience and culture, and the basis for his or her perception of the world” (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019, p. 120). In adult learning theory, I have characterized it as a person’s meaning perspective (i.e., subjective reality) which is comprised of habits of mind (i.e., how one perceives the world) and subsequent points of view (i.e., taking a stance); the former does not change while the latter can change (Kitchenham, 2008).

In workplace mediation, understanding both the frames of reference of my clients and my own frame of reference can assist me in reaching resolution before, during, and after the mediation process. The benefits of understanding my clients’ frames of reference include acknowledging they have different worldviews from each other or me, reminding me that their subjective worlds are often a large obstacle to overcome, understanding that those frames are both real and sensical to them, broadening the context for framing issues and determining needs and interests, and bracketing my own worldview to accept the clients’ social realities within their own cultures (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019, p. 121). I must also consider that clients might have fixed mindsets (i.e., immoveable) and I might not be able to convince them to adopt growth mindsets (i.e., malleable) (Dweck, 2006) even after a great deal of communication and perspective-taking in the mediation process related to the conflict situation.

As Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, and Maynard (2019) argued, “mediators should recognize their own strengths and limitations, their favourite approaches to conflict, their cultural beliefs, and their personality types” (p. 122). To wit, I am a strong proponent of self-awareness and have strived hard to understand more about myself as a mediator. I have studied and teach about the original Emotional Intelligence (EI) (Goleman, 2006), the updated EI (Bradbury, & Greaves, 2009), and Social Intelligence (SI) (Goleman, 2006); I also have an accurate idea of my own EI based on Bradbury and Greaves’ (2009) assessment instrument: 90 out of 100. As part of my conflict consultancy, I also assess the personality type, using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), of my clients when requested which is an asset in workplace conflict cases since, like frames of reference, personality clashes are evident when examined through the MTBI lens. My own personality style is INTJ which means (roughly) that I tend to be an introvert (I) who is intuitive (N) in how I process information (i.e., I like to process it before making a decision) and uses logical thinking (T) to make decisions rather than examining the emotional aspects of the situation and, once I make a decision, I stand by that particular judgement (J). Lastly, I know my own conflict style based on the Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory which is equally Compromising and Cooperating so, at times, I tend to focus moderately on my own agenda and on my clients’ agenda while, at other times, I focus heavily on my and their agendas in equal measures.

In sum, being aware of my clients’ frames of reference will assist me in the mediation process so that I can see their worldviews and work with those in the mediation room. I also have a strong self-awareness of my own worldview and its related factors such as emotional and social intelligences, personality style, and conflict style.

Further reading:

Bradbury, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional intelligence 2.0. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success – How we can learn to fulfill our potential. New York, New York: Ballantyne Books.

Ewert, C., Barnard, G., Laffier, J., & Maynard, M. L. (2019). Choices in approaching conflict: Principles of dispute resolution (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Emond Publishing.

Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam.

Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships – Beyond IQ, beyond emotional intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam.

Kitchenham, A. D. (2008). The evolution of John Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education, 6(2), 104-123.

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