Reframing the box

Debaters are wordsmiths

Nae Șovăială, Master Debate Trainer (IDEA)

Competitive debate competitions are marvelous things: They take people from various backgrounds and with different beliefs that share quite the uncommon passion, intellectual jousting, and ask them to weave persuasive arguments for and against complex topics. 

They have 15 minutes to prepare with nothing but their wisdom, wits and debate partner at hand on topics of International politics, macroeconomics, ethics, or the environment.

The speeches they deliver are not necessarily synchronized with their own views of the word, but that’s the beauty of it – for them, argumentation is a sport, an art, a craft. They have mastered both form & function, both dialectics & rhetorics. 

They are both wordsmiths and noematic-artisans.


What is framing?

One of the tools that debaters aptly use from their rhetorical arsenal is called “framing”, and I feel it does not get to be in the spotlight as much as it deserves. Usually, we champion argumentation, critical thinking or an agile mindset.

Through careful selection of words with specific connotation, through presentation of intended examples and thoughtful exclusion of others, the speaker guides the listener to feel in a specific way towards the final conclusion of the argument.

We see this used all the time (to more or less ethical ends) in journalism, when the act of simply describing a certain group as “flood of immigrants” (a flood is something unstoppable, usually catastrophic, in this context dehumanizing) or “masses of immigrants” (a word usually used to describe people, in this context humanizing) can make the reader adopt a certain (positive or negative) attitude towards said group.

This is not the aspect of framing that I am interested in focusing on. Rather, I would like to guide your attention to a by-product of this rhetorical technique that has pragmatic implication in problem-solving


A simple thought experiment

Here’s a simple thought experiment:

You’re the owner of a 20 story building. Tenants in the building are constantly complaining that the elevator is too slow. Truth be told, it is quite an old elevator. Some tenants are even threatening to break the lease if waiting times are not diminished.

The “Slow Elevator Problem”

When asked for solutions to the above mentioned problem, some people quickly come up with one of the two: Get a new lift or upgrade the motor. Some forward thinkers will even suggest the elevator algorithm be upgraded.

But what would happen if we tried to apply the debate instrument we just spoke about to reframe the problem?

How could we describe the situation in a different manner than, people are upset about the old elevators? One potential way of going about it is to say that people are annoyed with the waiting times. Although this seems to not get us anywhere, it actually opens our mind to a more direct issue. Solve the annoying waiting times, not the waiting times. Make the wait less annoying.  Building managers will solve this problem in a more ingenuous and less costly way – add mirrors in the hallways next to the elevator doors. This simple solution works brilliantly, as it gives people an excellent way to pass time: admiring themselves. 


Don’t be too sure you know the problem

But it is oh-so-easy to become trapped in the only certainty you feel you know: “the problem”. 

Debater who have mastered the art of framing will be able to overcome this hurdle due to two reasons:

  1. They have perfected the technique of framing. They can weave words to describe the same concept in different ways and hence have a knack for seeing things from many different angles.
  2. They have a specific attitude towards ideation – the process of coming up with ideas. They don’t stick to the first one they get and when they do get an idea.

There’s an old artist saying: “Kill your fancy”. It’s an urge to not get emotionally attached to a creation, or, in this case, a thought, so that when a better one arises, it’s easy for you to discard the former and adopt the latter.


Learn debating!

Debate not only gives you valuable tools that you can use to reframe problems in your professional or personal life but also upgrade your attitude, allowing you to have a more agile mindset and be less prone to sticking with only one (suboptimal) idea.

In the hopes that this might give you a new angle in thinking,

Nae Șovăială

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