There is an important portfolio investment decision to be made, and it’s up to you to list the facts and categorize the pros and cons – that way, the SteerCo will be able to make a well-balanced decision, right? With your understanding of the situation, you have a clear picture of what would be the optimal outcome (the investment should be made) of the decision-making process. However (as usual) you know that there will be others in the meeting who do not share your view of the world and its desired future state, and you fear that they will turn the meeting into an emotion-filled political debate…
How not to solve it
You prepare the materials for the meeting, focusing on a ‘clean’ presentation of the key numbers – and by doing so you try to keep emotions and politics away from the meeting. You try to think what counter-arguments might be brought to the table, and you are well prepared to reply with a matter-of-fact approach to the situation. During the actual meeting, your fears become reality when that one *** person yet again manages to cleverly play the group’s fears and feelings, and thwart the process of rational decision making. The investment is turned down, and you see the window of opportunity passing by…
Why it does not work like you think it would
Decisions are made among stakeholders, in a group, and this guarantees that there will always be competing preferences and different views of what counts as the desired outcome. Such views are also loaded with value (sometimes quite literally, as people have invested in their views and preferences and opinions) and therefore are fiercely defended – the more value some view represents for a person, the more heavily defended it will be. You could call it politics, but it is actually just daily life, this is how our species works.
Neutral presentation of facts does not exist – there is always some context (including some value) that gets expressed in the way that facts are presented. We might call that context the “frame”, which is a good way to understand how it works. Think of a picture you like, and imagine it has a clear aluminum frame. Now imagine that same picture with a rich golden baroque-style frame – see how it has changed?
There is a famous experiment where one group of people are asked if they would undergo some surgery and then are told that the survival rate is 90%. Another group gets the same question, and they are told that the mortality rate is 10%. Although the risk is exactly the same from a statistical point of view, the way the question is framed (the wording) focuses on survival for the one group and on dying for the other group. Unsurprisingly, the ‘survival’ test group chooses significantly more often for this surgery than the ‘death’ test group.
Once again, neutral presentation of facts does not exist – there is always context spilling in from the words you choose to present your facts.
What you should do
Once you realize that framing is always implicitly happening (just like politics – which is defined as just different world views and therefore different values and therefore different opinions), make use of that fact by explicitly thinking about the frames you are using, or could use. It’s not only the facts that you present that make up the argumentation, but also the frame that you put your facts in. The framing presents a silent, but powerful, additional influence to your argumentation.