Changing the Narrative Through Asset Framing
As a professional communicator I understand intuitively (and through long experience) that words have great power. If any part of your role involves communicating clearly, hopefully you also understand this simple yet powerful concept.
That’s why we always talk about “framing” an issue or communication in order to shape the narrative. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this desire. Indeed, if you don’t control the narrative for your client, company or cause, you can be assured others will – and it might not be to your liking or benefit.
When working with underserved populations in a communications role, thinking about narrative is especially important in order to reach your desired long-term goals. Trabian Shorters, CEO of BMe Community, an organization which trains leading organizations in matters of diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, has pointed out the short-sighted and often self-defeating strategy of using a “deficit based” narrative. What do you think of when you hear the term “at-risk” youth or “high-crime neighborhood”? What associations do you think this conjures in the mind of your intended audience? It doesn’t matter whether this is a “friendly” audience or if you’re trying to change hearts and minds. Despite our best intentions, when we define a population by their challenges, we perpetuate stereotypes and stigmas. In the long run, we’re not doing them any favors.
"Thinking is difficult. That's why most people judge."—Carl Jung
This free association isn’t to be judged. Shorters built on the work of Nobel prize winning social scientist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman proved what many of us know on some level – the human animal doesn’t really make fact-based decisions. Rather, our subconscious (or associative) minds do 95% of our work for us. Our conscious minds can only handle so many simultaneous tasks. Trying walking quickly back and forth while doing multiplication tables in your head and chewing some gum. You’ll eventually notice you’ve stopped at least one of these activities without realizing. This is why branding is so effective – a well-defined brand is a welcome mental shortcut for the associative mind.
Our brains have evolved to free up the conscious by creating the associative part of our minds to quickly form and then reinforce narratives, freeing us up to make more purposeful decisions. And your mind is prone to disregard facts that don’t fit the existing narrative you have unknowingly built. That’s just how we work.
When, in an effort to grab people’s attention, we reinforce these stereotyped narratives with deficit-based word choices, we’re not helping to change this automatic association. “Homeless veteran” triggers very different connotations than “veteran experiencing homelessness”. This is more than mere semantics. The latter term is about a fellow human with a challenge. The former makes this situation (homelessness) part of this person’s identity, while also dehumanizing and reducing them to a problem which needs to be solved. These are two very different narratives with two very different outcomes. Putting a roof over a “homeless” veteran’s head means “problem solved”. Helping someone experiencing homelessness speaks to a long-term, holistic solution with dignity.
Asset framing seeks to define a person by their aspirations, not their challenges. A now famous example of this is the marriage-equality movement. When asset-based (read “aspirational”) language became the center of the discussion, rather than “rights,” is when public sentiment began to slowly change. Promoting the understanding that same sex couples had the same dreams of building a life together, buying a home perhaps, committing to each other through good times and bad, sharing life and growing old together, now that’s asset framing. By focusing on these positive assets (shared human aspirations) rather than the negative, helped change that narrative and public attitudes.
Of course, this narrative building must be intentional and deep. Resist the urge to simply swap out words for jargon. Calling someone handi-capable, alternately enabled, or referring to their diverse-abilities is, in my opinion, patronizing and ignores human aspiration. Go deeper. My suggestion is to lead with asset-framed, aspirational messaging before transitioning to any issue which needs to be addressed.
Deficit-based language doesn’t change minds and mental models. Both progressive and conservative wags constantly use the identical narrative of high unemployment, fatherless households, and above-average incarceration rates within the Black community to bolster their own positions on what to do about these “problems”. What if, instead, the narrative was around shared aspirations for earning a good living for yourself and the rewards of family life. Only the hard-core can argue against that, and you’re not going to reach those folks anyway.
The next time you have a discussion or draft a communication remember, your words have tremendous power. Use them wisely.