tufts universitytufts magazine issue homepage
contact us back issues related links
features columns Take It From Me Scholar At Large Animal Instincts Negotiating Life jumbolaya planet tufts newswire the big day departments

negotiating life

Frames of Mind

Good negotiations can depend on finding the right approach to the issues

In 2002, the leadership of a large New Jersey hospital became concerned about ethnic tensions between patients and staff. The patients, mainly Hispanic, were complaining about insensitive, rude, and sometimes discriminatory treatment by the doctors. Nearly 80 percent of the doctors were immigrants, primarily from India, Pakistan, Russia, and Africa, and they often found it hard to communicate with patients, many of whom didn’t speak English. Indeed, a study by outside consultants indicated that the doctors lacked the skills to deliver care in a multicultural environment.

In response, hospital administrators hired a firm to run costly training seminars. None of the doctors attended. They were too busy taking care of patients, they said. But then the administration tried another tack. It persuaded a doctor to work with a communications expert to prepare a presentation of a medical case in which a physician who didn’t speak Spanish had to diagnose a Hispanic patient who didn’t speak English. The presentation was then offered at “grand rounds,” the time when doctors gathered to discuss interesting cases. The session marked a breakthrough: engaged by the problem, the doctors began to learn about communicating with ethnically diverse patients. They even asked that future grand rounds include similar material.

The hospital succeeded in educating its doctors because it changed the frame it was using. Framing—the way a situation is characterized—can orient people’s thinking in either productive or unfruitful ways, and the frames that work best take into account the interests of those who are to be influenced. Three kinds of frames are particularly important: process frames, substantive frames, and behavioral frames.

Process Frames. By using grand rounds to get through to its doctors, the New Jersey hospital both affirmed the importance of cultural diversity in medical care and showed respect for the physicians’ status. A lecture from an outside expert who was not a doctor could do neither. In your own interactions with others, think hard about the kinds of processes you choose. If you feel you are underpaid, will your boss be more receptive to a demand for a raise or to a request for a performance review? Or say the town planning board has decided against letting you expand your house. Will its members be more likely to reconsider if you lodge a protest or if you seek an explanation?

Substance Frames. The hospital’s use of grand rounds also reframed the substance of the issue. The subject was no longer ethnic and racial relations, which held little interest for the doctors, but a medical problem, something central to their professional lives. President George H.W. Bush made an equally savvy move in 1991 when he framed Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait as a threat to the territorial integrity of states, the international rule of law, and the U.N. Charter. The result was that countries large and small united to eject Iraq. In the buildup to the 2003 Iraq invasion, by contrast, Bush’s son never found a frame that convinced many nations they had enough at stake to justify joining his coalition.

Behavioral Frames. When the other side engages in unproductive behavior, it helps to reframe that behavior rather than respond in kind. Suppose the person across the table says an idea of yours is “really dumb.” Rather than becoming incensed, you might reply, “Maybe, but how would you improve it?” In a long negotiation between China and the United States over intellectual property rights, the Chinese representative, offering a new proposal, said, “It’s take it or leave!” Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. representative, stared at him silently for a long time and then gave a reframing reply: “If you really mean take it or leave it, I’m going to have to leave it. But I don’t think you mean that. What I think you mean is that you have given us a serious proposal that you want us to consider. And we will.” They eventually struck a deal.

Altering the terms of the discussion can help you in many negotiations. If you don’t like the picture that you see across the table, try changing the frame.

JESWALD W. SALACUSE is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and former dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. His most recent book is Seven Secrets for Negotiating with Government (AMACOM).

  © 2009 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155