Reality Construction Rule #2: Define the Situation
At its most basic level, framing reality means defining “the situation here and now” in ways that connect with others.
In the sense I use it here, framing involves the ability to shape the mean- ing of a subject—usually the situation at hand—to judge its character and significance through the meanings we include and exclude, as well as those we emphasize when communicating.4 At his first formal news conference on August 7, 2007, how did Robert Murray define “the situation here and now”? He was adamant that an earthquake had caused the mine’s collapse—not his company’s practice of “retreat mining,” which is exceedingly dangerous and tightly regulated. In this “situation here and now,” Murray sought to portray
The Power of Framing
Murray Energy Corporation as without blame. (You can check out Murray’s news conference on YouTube.5)
But Murray went on from there, confidently proclaiming, “We know exactly where the miners are,” promising, “I will not leave this mine until the men are rescued dead or alive,” and then boldly predicting, “We’re going to get them.”6 Curiously, at that same news conference, he spoke of subjects as wide-ranging as the essential nature of the U.S. coal industry for American consumers, new technologies, global warming, and his own rise from miner to founder, co-owner, and president of Murray Energy Corporation. On that hot August day, Robert Murray chose very specific meanings to define “the situation here and now” for those in attendance (and ruled out others that might suggest his company’s culpability). That is the essence of framing.
One of the most frequently asked questions about framing is a matter of definition: Is it a structured way of thinking or an act of communicating? In reality, it is both, because a frame is that mental picture, and framing is the process of communicating that picture to others.7 However, it can be a little confusing to talk about those “mental pictures” because they can be a single frame or snapshot of a situation, as in “I (Gail Fairhurst) am writing Chapter One right now.” Or they can be rather persistent patterns of thought that I have formed, for example, about “book writing” or “first chapter book writing.”
I prefer to call these more general structures mental models because they help organize our thoughts and serve as underlying expectations for what is likely to happen in new situations.8 Think of them as a library of past cases from which specific frames emerge each time we communicate.9 For example, from Robert Murray’s mental models for crisis communications, his “deflect responsibility” framing emerged, coupled with the tendency to make some rather bold predictions.
What motivates us to choose one framing strategy over another? The simple and perhaps slightly cynical answer is “self-interest” or “personal goals,” but the better answers are “culture” and “sensemaking.” As Chapter Two discusses, culture supplies us with a tool bag of specific language and arguments to consider when we communicate with another. Sensemaking is the situational engagement of mental models (just as the mine collapse
triggered Murray’s mental models for crisis communications).10 In practical terms, to have made sense is to know how to go on in a situation, that is, to know what to say or do next.11 Chapter Two discusses how mental models make this all possible.
Language becomes a key issue not just in our own sensemaking, but in how effectively we impact the sensemaking of others. In an increasingly complex world, language that is nuanced, precise, and eloquent enables leaders to draw distinctions that others may not see or be able to describe (Chapter Four). Quite often, options for surviving a complex world lie in those dis- tinctions.12 However, as Freudian slips also demonstrate, more than just conscious processes are at work when we use language. We need to know how to harness our unconscious as a result (Chapter Three).
Finally, and most important, a suitable definition of “the situation here and now” requires that we connect with others in some meaningful way. We have to be able to align others’ interests with our own because we are rarely free agents. We are interdependent and often so inextricably so that we cannot accomplish objectives on our own. When we operate with a sense of that inter- dependence, we are motivated to look for the best ways to connect to others. Robert Murray clearly aimed for such a connection, but did he succeed?