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Frame Convergence

Sarah Ogilvie

On one level negotiation can be defined as a form of social interaction. Negotiation requires communication between parties to attain some form of settlement. Its progress is dependent upon the mutual discussion of issues and the exchange of information (Kramer & Messick, 1995). As negotiators exchange their understandings, they not only exchange what they perceive but also how they perceive it. That is, they exchange the way in which they frame information. Exchanging information framed in a particular way is likely to influence the way the other party perceives the information as well (Putnam & Holmer, 1992). As perceivers incorporate this information it is also likely to influence their subsequent framing of information. However, the way in which frames influence the subsequent use of frames is yet to be thoroughly explored. Although research has investigated the possibility that disputants' use of frames may converge during an interaction, other patterns in frame usage - such as frame divergence or maintenance - have received limited attention to date. After reviewing the evidence for frame convergence, I will turn to a parallel theoretical concept, communication accommodation theory, to explore alternative patterns in the use of frames.

To determine whether conflict frames converged over time, Pinkley and Northcraft (1994) assessed disputants' responses to a series of conflict-related questions before and after they engaged in a negotiation. These pre- and post- negotiation responses were then classified along three dimensions. Convergence on a dimension was assumed when negotiators shifted towards a more similar rating along that dimension. The researchers found that although there were trends towards the convergence of frames, significant convergence was found on only one of the frame dimensions measured - the cooperate-win frame dimension - which measures the extent to which negotiators are motivated to achieve the best outcomes for self or the best outcomes for self and other. Despite this research providing some evidence of the convergence of conflict frames, in examining pre- and post-perceptions only, negotiator framing as it occurred over time was not directly measured (Gray et al., 1990; Putnam & Holmer, 1992). Using this method, the way that information is framed during the course of the interaction can be captured in only a limited way. To determine how framing serves to influence negotiator perceptions, the negotiation process, and resultant outcomes, the measurement approach needs to be able to capture the ongoing process of framing and reframing that occurs during the negotiation.

Although Donnellon and Gray (1989) did not assess the convergence or reciprocation of frames specifically, they demonstrated that disputants employ different frames at various stages of a negotiation. Adopting a discourse analytic approach, they interpreted utterances within the negotiation context across four qualitatively-defined stages of the process. Their analysis revealed that there was indeed movement toward the use of similar sets of frames. Given the limited quantitative scope of their analysis, generalisation of these results to other negotiation contexts may be debatable. Notwithstanding, their results suggest that disputant framing may converge across the course of a negotiation.

Drake and Donohue (1996) focussed directly on the nature of the communication between disputants in divorce mediations to analyse the way in which certain frames were used over time. Using a phase-mapping technique, these researchers were able to identify sections in the interaction where the same frames were used continuously use by both negotiators. They found that, in mediations that contained longer periods of same frame use, agreements were more likely to be reached. They argued that greater convergence of frame use between parties appeared to be related to greater focus, greater process control, more positive social attributions and thus, greater integration between parties.

Potential Patterns in Frame Shift: Exploring Communication Accommodation Theory

To explain the way in which frames may shift as a function of an interaction, other theories such as communication accommodation theory may provide some insight (Burgoon, Stern & Dillman, 1995; Hornsey & Gallois, 1998). This theory attempts to explain the way that speech patterns are subject to modification as a result of interacting with others. Research in this area suggests that communication-related behaviours and strategies shift in one of three ways relative to the other party: Communication behaviours can converge, diverge or be maintained over the course of an interaction (Burgoon et al, 1995; Hornsey & Gallois, 1998).

According to communication accommodation theory, convergence can be conceived of as a strategy resulting in the adaptation of communication-related behaviours (Giles, Coupland & Coupland, 1991). This strategy describes instances in which the communication style of one individual shifts toward the other or when both individuals shift toward a common communication style. In the area of communication, features such as speech rate, utterance length, and bodily gestures have been found to converge over time (Giles et al., 1991). Individuals may be motivated to adjust or accommodate their speech-related behaviours to gain approval, pursue relationship development and maintenance objectives or attain greater communication efficiency (Burgoon et al., 1995; Hornsey & Gallois, 1998). Individuals with lower contextual power become motivated to converge toward individuals with higher power (Giles et al., 1991).

Just as individuals may be motivated to adjust their communication styles towards the other person, they may also be motivated to differentiate themselves to emphasise certain social distinctions (e.g., group membership), or to suggest that the other party is behaving inappropriately (Burgoon et al., 1995; Hornsey & Gallois, 1998). That is, individuals may be motivated to maintain their own patterns or diverge away from their partner's patterns. In communication accommodation theory, divergence designates instances in which the communication style of one individual shifts away from the other or when both individuals shift toward a different communication style. Maintenance is said to occur when one or both individuals maintain their style. Although conceptions of divergence and maintenance imply differences in the activity of communication behaviour, they are treated equivalently in the communication literature because the motivations underpinning their occurrence are believed to be the same (Hornsey & Gallois, 1998).

In the study of social interactions, analysis of the patterns within communication behaviour can provide important insights into such features as impression formation and relationship development. Similarly, in the area of negotiation communication, patterns in the way that information is framed can be used to further understand aspects of the negotiation process including the relationship between parties. As both communication and conflict frames are understood to be dynamic constructs that may change during the course of an interaction (Donnellon & Gray, 1989; Hornsey & Gallois, 1998; Giles et al., 1991; Putnam & Holmer, 1992), communication accommodation theory has been used to formulate predictions about the way that frames might be used during negotiation.

As noted earlier, in the area of frame analysis, only the convergence of conflict frames that has received attention to date (Donnellon & Gray, 1989; Drake & Donohue, 1996; Pinkley & Northcraft, 1994). One of the reasons why frames may converge during negotiation is because of a desire to understand the needs and concerns of the other party (Donnellon & Gray, 1989). Shifting to the same viewpoint, might facilitate certain understandings between those in conflict. Arguably then, maintaining one's own viewpoint or shifting away from the other party's may result in a less optimal agreement. To investigate these predictions further, the current research explored these patterns of communication convergence, divergence, and maintenance and their relationship with outcomes achieved.

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