Sometimes to win an argument, you need to adopt your opponent’s point of view

Wedding bouquetFraming, that is the way in which a choice is presented, is often key to winning political (and indeed non-political) debates. Consider the following two statements, for example:

It’s dreadful that the government is letting private companies access more medical data about people.

It’s great that the government is letting medical researchers access more medical data about diseases.

They are both ways you could describe the current government’s actual policy. Whether the issue is framed as being about private companies or medical researchers and whether it is about personal data or information about diseases makes a huge difference to whether or not people see it as a good or bad thing.

It’s an example of why the contest over how to frame an issue is often such an important part of campaigning. Sometimes, however, victory comes not from trying to replace the other side’s frame but instead from embracing it and turning it to your own advantage, as the experience of equal marriage campaigners from the US shows:

After the losses in Maine in 2009 and California a year earlier, LGBT advocates knew they needed to craft an effective [message]…

For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.

The gay rights coalition’s response was the “Why Marriage Matters” campaign. Its message was “love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits. On the surface, it looks like any garden-variety public education campaign, a little vague, a little sappy. But … it signaled a sea change in the way gay advocates pled their case. This was a way to invite straight people to empathize with gay people, to reassure the majority that gay people wanted the same things that they did, and to shift focus from minority rights to points of commonality. The year Why Marriage Matters rolled out, 2011, was also the year that a slew of polls first showed majority national support for same-sex marriage.

You can read the full article from Slate.com here.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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7 Comments

  • Re Sometimes to win an argument, you need to adopt your opponent’s point of view: I follow what you saying but its all a trick on words to hide the truth Politicians have always used double speech an evasion and phraseology to hood wink the public hence once they in power they lose favour as the truth behind their words comes out hence the disillusionment of the voters today Don’t you get it talking the truth giving from the heart saying what one thinks (lol all politicians scared too these days in case they fall foul of their party leadership) then you may win respect.

  • Another example. Renewables are always (in the USA) presented as an argument for energy independence rather than controlling climate change. Why? Because the energy industry has succeeded in trashing the climate change question. Pity that fracking is likely to give the US a degree of energy independence and the argument becomes less convincing.

  • “This is similar to opinion polls “commissioned by” an organisation that wants to show it is right. Does the polling company make sure the wording of the question gives the “right” answer, and/or does the poll get ignored if it gives the wrong answer?”

    There is no obligation to publish a poll if you “don’t like the answers”, however AIUI under BPC rules if you publish a poll you have to publish the whole thing (ie you can’t ask a question several ways and only publish the most favourable answer)

  • Richard Dean 2nd Jan '13 - 1:23pm

    Both statements are partially true, as well as “allowing companies to access more data about diseases”. Framing is perhaps understandable as a way of focussing one selected aspects of truth, and steering the audience away from other aspects. So it’s a fancy word for misdirection and telling lies by omission! It’s not really any credit to LGBT advocates that they use it, I suppose their excuse is that the other side does too.

    A related, valuable skill is to be able to understand one’s opponents view, and the way it is constructed, to the extent of almost being able to share it. That can provide, not only predictions about future moves, but also a way of introducing new information that sets up a conflict that can eventually undermine the opponent’s will to argue, as well as their argument itself!

  • simon7banks 3rd Jan '13 - 10:58am

    We seem to have got off the point a bit here. First Terry’s thought-free rhetoric (there is a quite simple distinction, Terry, between presenting what you really believe in language likely to get waverers on your side, and lying; not just politicians but anyone co-operating with other people, including couples dealing with a sensitive issue, do the former). Then a debate about medical data – important, but I think Mark was just using the two statements as an example.

    St Paul said he had become all things to all men. He didn’t mean he was saying precisely what anyone wanted to hear, like “these wretched Christians are all thieves and sexual perverts and the sooner they’re slaughtered the better”, but that he was trying to understand people’s background and way of thought and then putting his basic message in ways they could understand and didn’t find threatening. A simple example in the political field is talking about fairness rather than equality. Conservatives are used to disliking the “nanny state”, so if you want to persuade some of them to oppose electronic snooping, use the term “nanny state” and avoid the term “civil liberties”. Simples.

  • Nigel Jones 3rd Jan '13 - 10:15pm

    Its really all about putting you case in a positive way rather than a negative way. Mark’s example of gay marriage was exemplified by David Cameron when he began a comment on TV saying he was very much in favour of marriage and went on to talk in terms of commitment, rather than starting by condemning those who are against gay marriage.
    We also should remember in 2008 Barrack Obama wanted people to embrace change not so much because it was against his predecessor’s efforts, but because his idea of change was in principle in line with the approach of the USA’s founding fathers and therefore pro-American rather than ant-American.
    It is in any case good to be able to propagate a cause on the basis of long established principles, when you feel that those principles require a different way of putting into practice ub current circumstances.
    Does this not suggest that we Lib-Dems should do more in the next election to emphasise our basic principles and not commit ourselves to too much policy detail ?

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