We and our groups inevitably face complex, difficult, ambiguous, or plain old hard questions, problems, and challenges. It’s a natural part of life.
Often, we struggle with the decisions, choices, or judgements they involve. And as frequently, we wish in retrospect that we had arrived at alternative solutions or chosen different responses than the ones we did.
In this sense, while complex issues and hard questions are natural, arriving at optimal or enduring answers to them is often less natural or intuitive – as important as this can be to the quality of our lives and collective functioning over time.
To help make hard questions, complex choices, and difficult judgments in life easier for you, I would like to acquaint you with an important and very flexible problem-solving technique from my book, The Seven Keys of Natural Life.
The technique is called Active Framing. As you will see, Active Framing is quickly learned and reliably employed in many settings, and with even some of the most complex or uncertain questions and decisions we face in our lives and endeavors.
Options Can Help To Solve Hard Problems, Or Simply Add To Their Complexity
To introduce Active Framing, I will start by describing how most of us naturally approach questions and arrive at answers, and will summarize this process with a simple and easy-to-remember model. We will then explore how this natural process of judging or deciding can be actively used – and really, turned on itself – to allow us to solve hard problems and questions reliably, beneficially, and often quite rapidly.
In the early part of our discussion, I will use a series of simple examples – involving Jack and Jill and their proverbial hill. But I will end with some common real-life examples of complex questions, and highlight how Active Framing can make manageable hills out of many seemingly mountainous questions, issues, and challenges.
Understanding Our Answers & Judgments
So, Jack and Jill are at the bottom of a hill, and decide to go up to fetch a pail of water. Most of us know how the story goes from here. But what brought them to this point, and how did they make this decision?
> Scenario #1 – one scenario might be that they were instructed to do so by an authority figure, and believed this was an optimal course of action, or did not want to be disobedient.
> Scenario #2 – another scenario might be that this action was customary, and they believed this custom was necessary, or that it was unwise to be unconventional.
> Scenario #3 – yet another scenario might be that they reasoned for themselves that a pail of water was needed, and that the well on the hill was the surest way to get this water.
As you can see, in each of these cases – and critically, in most answering and judging – there is an amount of reasoning that occurs against a set of background assumptions, understandings, or beliefs, as well as a still larger body of available information – which together inspire or propel action. Importantly, our beliefs, reasoning, and actions can be both conscious and unconscious.
These natural facts of life and our mental functioning are not difficult to appreciate, though we often do not think (about our thinking) in this way, and you may need to reflect on this idea for a moment.
Practically, the quality or integrity of our foreground reasoning and background information are of course important to making sound judgments. But I would like to focus for a minute on the mediating, simplifying, and enabling assumptions, beliefs, understandings, or mental maps that inevitably and necessarily distill information and permit us to reason intelligibly.
This natural, intermediate, and often decisive aspect of our moving from information to thinking, and then to judging and acting, is often called framing by cognitive researchers and theorists (see Wikipedia Framing and Herbert Simon for an introduction to this research and its origins). As you likely guessed, this crucial area of cognitive research, and the many beneficial insights and applications it has engendered, are the basis of the technique of Active Framing.
Across this important research, our framing – our creation of beliefs, understandings, or frames of reference – has been shown essential to life, since we or any intelligent entity cannot process or think about the totality of information available to us. Naturally, and unavoidably, we must simplify information via framing assumptions, beliefs, mental models, or general outlooks, before or as we think. Notably, similar simplifications of information occur when we perceive, feel, and act as well.
In an information age, the idea that we naturally simplify or distill information is not hard to appreciate. But what may be less clear is just how much of our framing occurs unconsciously or automatically, and owing to external influences we do not or only partly perceive – and thus apart from our potential to actively create useful or more optimal frames of reference.
Importantly, these automatic or passive modes of framing, like other aspects of our automatic functioning, often work adequately with small or routine matters. But they can significantly fail or under-serve us with complex questions, and amidst the overall complexity of modern life, which often require our full attention and great care if we are to proceed intelligently, adaptively, and successfully.
There’s one more thing I want to highlight about cognitive framing. As hinted at already, in addition to being natural and essential to life, framing has also been shown to often be the most crucial aspect of or influence on the quality of our thinking, decision-making, and actions in many settings.
In life, how we frame can strongly guide, or anchor, how we subsequently or concurrently think and act. Because of this, when we seek to decode or explain our or other’s reasoning and actions, it is often the case that our framing is the principle driver of the ways we think, feel, perceive, and act – rather than the quality of our thinking. And when we look at how well or easily we solve hard questions and complex challenges, here too the nature or quality of our framing often proves most decisive.
Model Of Answering Or Judging
Returning to the scenarios above, it is clear that Jack and Jill could have been misinformed or reasoned erroneously when deciding to ascend the hill. But even in these simple scenarios, you can perhaps see that variations in their core beliefs, assumptions, or framing are apt to be the largest determinant of their, and our, eventual judgments and actions.
Overall, absent metal illness, people tend to be fairly reasonable in their reasoning. And when we appear unreasonable – or seem to think or act unusually, strangely, or maladaptively – it is often our distilling assumptions, cognitive frames, or information-in-use that is the principal cause.
Importantly, the criticality of our framing or the ways we approach issues is an idea that you can quickly explore and test for yourself. It is a principle you can use to reliably gain new situational insights and even win arguments – in both cases, by focusing on and probing assumptions rather than reasoning. And the idea is of course at the heart of that frequent admonition, never to carelessly assume.
Overall, the natural process of deciding, answering, or judging can be described or modeled by the four-step process shown below.
information > framing > reasoning > judging
Though this model is simple, it proves remarkably powerful at describing, and ultimately improving, the way we and our groups answer questions, make decisions, and respond to challenges, large and small. And it holds the key to astutely examining complex questions of many kinds, and making them more manageable and easier to answer.
The power of the model lies first in its ability to help us understand the overall process of judging, or more plainly frame or think about our thinking. But at least as importantly, the model also permits us to isolate these natural components of all judgements and gauge their relative importance in our functioning. And when we and researchers do this, our framing often proves to be both decisive and frequently unconscious or unexamined, especially when we are engaged in complex thinking and problem-solving.
To explore these ideas, consider a memorable decision you made recently. As you recall the decision, you will likely have a fairly easy time recounting or reconstructing your reasoning and the key information or points of fact you employed. What may be more difficult to surface, subtle, and ultimately important to your judgment, however, are the underlying assumptions, understandings, or framing that drove or anchored your reasoning.
You might also consider that when you struggle with a complex choice or decision – and especially when you don’t know how to think through or reason out an answer – the problem we typically face is not with our faculty of reason. Rather, we are more likely stymied because our reasoning does not have an enabling frame or facilitating set of assumptions within or upon which to operate. This idea explains why many problems – from mathematics to assembling furniture – can be initially difficult or arresting, but then are often easily resolved, once frameworks (or instructions) for processing are discovered or laid out.
Again and again, we can observe in our problem-solving that when a definitive frame is present or found, even if this frame is crude or less than ideal, our reasoning and judging normally proceed fairly quickly and directly. Notably, we can further discern that our reasoning and judging typically operate with adequate precision across many of the problems and challenges we and our groups face, and thus with the many frames we employ amidst life, and that the quality of our reasoning and judging generally reflects the quality of our framing.
Because of this – owing to the fact that framing is unavoidable or essential to thinking, and because framing tends to strongly influence and even direct our thinking – careful and attentive framing proves crucial to quality of life and group functioning generally, and to complex decisions, judgments, and actions in particular.
From Passive To Active Framing
As its name suggests, Active Framing places special emphasis on understanding the cognitive frames, assumptions, or criteria that we use, or might use, when answering a complex question or making an important decision.
Through Active Framing, and as you will see, difficult problems of many varieties can be routinely resolved more wisely, optimally, and quickly than is typical – and notably than when we or others focus primarily on reasoning and judging, or on protracted information gathering.
How We Frame Generally Determines What We See – And What We Think
In principle and practice, Active Framing first involves stepping back from questions, issues, problems, and challenges – and our initial or current reactions to or processing of them. The technique then focuses us on building a decision framework and finally examining critical information required to respond to the issue intelligently.
As mentioned before, Active Framing leads us to think about our thinking. Perhaps helpfully, this process of reflection on our thoughts is sometimes referred to and viewed as superior double loop processing. This idea, or frame, proposes that we can function simultaneously and more advantageously with a primary loop of task-focused thinking or acting, and a second, reflective loop examining the first loop (see Wikipedia Double Loop Learning)
To initiate Active Framing, a good way to begin is by stopping to consider how we could or might answer a question or resolve an issue, without moving to a solution. In this way, we can better open ourselves to new perspectives, understandings, or framings of the issue. As outlined before, the technique takes as likely that we will reason and judge adequately, once a helpful or enabling, and ideally adaptive or transforming, frame is discovered – or rather, created.
Active Framing can be described with the following four steps:
> Step #1: Step back – the first step in active framing is to create new perspective on the question, issue, or challenge before us or our group. In practice, we generally will struggle to consider and create new frames when we are immersed in an existing one. So, take a break, do something else, or otherwise create some mental distance from the matter before you. To return to Jack and Jill, this might involve stopping before the hill, putting down their pail, and making time to consider their actions.
> Step #2: Clarify essential goals – without moving to answer the question or resolve the issue, describe how success would likely look in broad terms. This can include identifying what matters or issues must be resolved, what people or stakeholders must be satisfied, and perhaps what deadlines must be observed. For Jack and Jill, this step might involve determining that a successful decision requires them to clarify: a) how much water is needed, b) from which sources it is best obtained, and c) how the water is best transported. As you can see, the matter is not decided or answered at this point. Instead, we more simply clarify what needs to be addressed or solved for in an eventual solution.
> Step #3: Frame your solution – once your needed goals or decision points have been clarified, list the key considerations or factors that should be evaluated to help you reliably and satisfyingly reach your goals. Such considerations form your decision frame or framework, at once clarifying, simplifying, and exploring essential issues before you, and helping you to make more informed and attentive decisions. Often, such considerations will include evaluating specific needs, costs, time, effort, and risks. For Jack and Jill, their key factors or decision framework might include assessing actual water needs, nearby water sources, potential transportation methods, and of course potential risks traveling to and from each water source. Their frame might also include assessing the added benefits – whether economic or from having more uninterrupted free time – of transporting additional water. In this way, a frame for sound reasoning and judgment is actively, reliably, and often easily created.
> Step #4: Gather info & decide – ideally with at least three and not more than seven decision framework factors or criteria, the final step is to gather information, evaluate options against these factors, and render an answer, judgment, decision, or solution to the question or issue that you or your group face. Generating options from information is a separate topic, but always strive to give yourself or your group at least three distinct options for a solution to a problem or challenge, and more if it is a hard or complex one. If you have fewer options than this, this generally means you need to either gather more information or generate additional factors for your frame.
As a learning aid, I would encourage you to immediately choose a real-life issue or pending decision, and then use this process to explore and actively frame your needed set of key considerations to resolve the matter. You may be surprised at how quickly and easily complex or ambiguous questions can be re-framed, and then more easily and reliably addressed in this way.
Difficult Questions Answered
In practice, and as predicted by considerable research, the technique of Active Framing can be quite powerful and even transformative.
It can lead us to: 1) see issues in a new light, 2) explore and surface what is most essential within or around an issue or problem, 3) efficiently gather critical high-quality information, and 4) reason and judge far more effectively. And this is especially true compared with more intuitive or passive approaches to the framing and answering of complex questions.
Since the simple case of Jack and Jill borders on the trivial, here are a set of practical questions that are both common and normally difficult to answer intuitively, but are often quickly resolved or made manageable through Active Framing:
- How should I act in certain settings, or in new ones?
- Should I begin, end, or alter a particular relationship?
- Is it desirable, or ethical, to behave in a specific way?
- Should our group enter a new operating space or venture?
- Who are the best people for a new team within our group?
- What college, program, and career should I pursue?
- How should I best spend my time over the next year?
We of course are each frequently bedeviled by these and similar questions. As I said before, they are a natural part of life and life’s inherent complexity. Often, we respond to questions of these kinds intuitively and uncertainly, perhaps engaging in either inadequate or excessive thought and reflection, and end up with solutions or answers that are tenuous, unsatisfying, and even haphazard.
A waiting alternative is to give ourselves new, adequate, and attentive structure to guide our thinking – by actively and curiously framing the way we are thinking, or will think, through an issue or challenge. In each of the above questions, perhaps you can see already that there are essential considerations or factors that we can quickly surface, not only to make answers to these questions easier and more reliable, but that tellingly also makes vast amounts of information, complex reasoning, or exacting judgments unnecessary.
For example, with the first question, we might actively frame the question of our most desirable behaviors in terms of aligning our actions with the specific outcomes or goals we most want to achieve, as a person or group, and in specific settings and more broadly. This framing requires us to clarify our goals, but otherwise leads to fairly easy answers to what for many is one of life’s most vexing questions. Alternatively, we might frame our needed behaviors in terms of authenticity, which again would compel us to define or frame this personal or collective quality in specific terms.
In just this way – by consciously creating a problem-solving frame – all of the complex questions above and many more can be readily made manageable. Go ahead and try a couple of the above questions on your own, using the four-step process I have introduced.
As I have emphasized, two of the most crucial lessons of psychology and cognitive science over the last 100 years are that our framing strongly drives our reasoning and eventual judgments, and that our frames can be actively evaluated or informed, made more conscious, and thereby improved or trued, aiding our reasoning and judging.
By moving from passive to active framing, or from single loop to double loop processing – where we consciously think about the nature and quality of our thinking, framing, and overall consciousness – we often find a new ability to live more powerfully and freely, and that once formidable problems shrink in size and complexity, and perhaps in importance too.
If you will practice and encourage Active Framing, especially when confronting hard, complex, and ambiguous problems and questions, you are likely to become a far more skilled decision-maker and problem-solver – and even someone sought-after for these powerful and only partly natural qualities.
Health & best wishes,
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