Our society is replete with highly charged and very fateful examples of failed communication: Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate; liberals and conservatives; program advocates and community populations; the list is very, very long. Frequently, we conclude that it is “just impossible to communicate with them.”
What to do? The most tempting response is to just give up and walk away. This not only ends the effort to communicate, it also ends the substantive work that was the object of the communication in the first place. To put this in colloquial terms, the war was lost for lack of a nail in a horse’s shoe. Clearly, we need to develop a much better response to failed communication.
Over the past decade, communication science has been advancing rapidly. We have learned that when communication fails, one of the primary causes is a lack of a common frame—interpreting the communication differently because it evokes different cultural meanings in those seeking to communicate. When this occurs, good communication can be promoted by identifying a common frame that does not evoke typical cultural ideas that impede the communication.
A real world example is in order. If we want to conduct a discourse on child mental health, a scientist is likely to think about the developing brain, while a person from the public is likely to wonder whether young children actually have “mental health”, whether mental health develops later, or whether children are “just like adults”. What is needed here is a common frame to promote effective communication, and one that is based in recent science. Research indicates that child mental health is a function the interplay of genetics and environment. Hence, an effective frame would be as follows: the child has a developing brain; that developmental process can be facilitated by positive interaction with the environment, and it can be harmed by toxic stress. This is a frame that can be understood by a scientist and by a person from the public.
This example is taken directly from the work of FrameWorks Institute, a pre-eminent, not-for-profit communications research and development entity engaged in cutting edge work. The example is from a FrameWorks project undertaken in the province of Alberta, Canada, with support from the Norlein Foundation. The effect of this Canadian work was to provide a common basis for communicating about child mental health among the health, education, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems in Alberta, as well as with the general public. From this common frame, common action to promote good child mental health became possible.
FrameWorks Institute not only conducts field projects, but also is advancing our understanding of the communication process. The Institute already has developed a research process to uncover the cultural models that guide our understanding of particular topics, and it has advanced the use of metaphor in communication. For example, in child mental health, effective development can be conceptualized as a flat table and problematical development as an uneven table. The concept of “toxic” stress as an inhibitor of healthy development aligns precisely with the scientific literature on the role of trauma in the development of behavioral problems. Each of these things—frame, cultural model, and metaphor—are critical for facilitating effective communication.