Woods or metals? Classic or contemporary? Statement-making thick or barely-there minimalist? There are lots of choices when picking out a frame, not to mention choosing a matte and whether you want glare-free or just regular glass. My wife and I face this decision now and again when we decide to frame something important - a new photo of our children or a piece of art we’ve found. Frames matter. There’s another lesson to be learned about framing. It’s a lesson about how conversations get framed, especially conversations about communities.
Perhaps a visit to fictitious Midville can illustrate the point. You can think of Midville as an average community. It could be a town or a neighborhood, and its residents are good folks, folks who care about where they live.
When they gather at the corner coffee shop, the beauty parlor, at their their kid’s soccer games, or even virtually in the online discussion board, midvillebabble.com, they talk about what’s going on in the community. Each of those discussions is framed in a specific way that sets the parameters and points toward a specific direction.
David Cooperrider, a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve, noted that people and organization move in the direction of their conversations; and the way in which those conversations get framed, help to determine what that direction will be. Cooperrider developed something he called “appreciative inquiry” or AI. He defines AI as “the cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them.“
I don’t know what conversations are like in your community but in Midville, they are not always focused on the best of the world around them. It’s not their fault really, most people are programmed to focus on the problems, to diagnose what’s wrong so that it can be fixed. Morning conversations around the corner table in the Midville Café are often about lazy kids, backdoor political deals, and good-paying factory jobs that no longer exist. Conversations about problems.
Cooperrider’s work isn’t based on some Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand notion of ignoring problems. It is based on the science of human and organizational behavior. The idea is that instead of focusing on negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, we can turn our attention toward discovery, dreaming, and designing together. This is especially powerful when it comes to communities. When we come together, whether as an informal group of residents, or at the invitation of some elected official or community group, the way in which the conversation gets framed makes a difference and framing a discussion to facilitate discovery, dreaming, and designing the future usually leads us to a good place.
Let’s take another peek at Midville. Some of the shopkeepers are concerned about teenagers loitering outside their stores, intimidating customers and being an overall nuisance. So, they call a meeting with the mayor and the police department to make sure someone does something about this problem. You can probably anticipate the direction that conversation is likely to take.
Advocates of AI say that a much more positive outcome could result from a conversation that was framed differently, perhaps like this:
Imagine Midville as place where shoppers consistently have a good shopping experience and our young people have a safe place to hang out and socialize. What would that look like?
According to AI when you frame a discussion like that and engage a lot of people in answering it – shopkeepers, customers, youth, along with the police and the mayor’s office, you will get a very different outcome, one that results in creative solutions and new ideas that no single person had before entering the room.
Powerful discussions begin with words like “what if,” “how,” “why” and my favorite, “imagine.” Less powerful discussions usually start with words like “who,” “when,” and “where.” One additional piece of advice when framing discussions for community conversations is to make sure the question being asked is one to which the answer is not already known. If it is, there is no need for any inquiry at all.
When we go to the trouble and expense of framing something for our home it’s usually because the object being frame is important to us, it has value. The same is true for our communities. Most of us value the places where we live. When we have conversations about our communities we should give some thought to picking out the right frame.
This column was originally published in quality newspapers the week of March 17, 2014