Frame Game Wars Over Elian Gonzalez

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

The following was written to the e-mail list group during April 2000 by Dr. Michael Hall.  It has been assembled here as an introduction to the practical value and usefulness of Frame Games.

The following is written, not to engage in a specific discussion
about Elian Gonzalez, but about the process of talking, thinking
reasoning and understanding the frames that govern this situation.

Frame Wars can and do occur at all levels of our lives.  They occur at the personal, inter-personal, family, business,  national, inter-national, and cultural levels as well as many others.  For several months and increasingly more often in the last couple of weeks we have been witnessing the Frame Wars in the media around the Elian Gonzalez case.

Given this, how do you look at the situation?  To ask that question is to inquire about your frame-of-reference and your frame of mind.

In that matter, what are the range of possible frames of reference and frames of mind that we could possibly use as we think and feel about this situation?  In this particular case, a wide range of frames have emerged in the media.

1) Hero Story Frame or Refugee Survival frame: washed up on the banks of the USA saved from certain death, the life-and-death struggle in watching mother die.  View thestory that way and it becomes a Modern Mythology of survival, a new Moses Story, asymbol of oppressed people.  View the particulars from this point of view, and you escalate the story into epic proportions and it’s no longer about the boy and his parents.

2) Political Frame: Freedom versus life in a third-world Police State country, opportunities for making a good life in an economically prosperous country versus life in a communism country, Cuba, dominated by a cultural anti-hero (Castro).  Bill Oreilly presents this frame regularly on his show on FOX news.  Viewed from this set of filters, the story is the contrast between Americanism and Communism.  We can’t dare send the boy back without denying “American Freedom.”  This frame also escalates the dynamics so that it is no longer about a particular boy.

3) Family life Frames.   A story of a Dad versus an extended family of Uncles and Aunts in Miami.  From this perspective, it’s a story about the restoration of a boy to his biological dad to restore the basic family relationships versus being raised by distant relatives in a foreign land.  From this perspective most Americas seem to realize and understand the father’s basic rights to his child and see that as primary.

4) Psychological Frames:  Traumatized and in “imminent danger” by father and “likely tosuffer irreversible emotional damage if returned, suffering PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and will have a depressive episode if returned” versus being brainwashed by Cuban refugees and suffering “cruel psychological pressures.”  That “the family in Miami” have come out swinging, pulling in their own “psychologists” to prove the father unfit shifts the frame to a psychological frame.  Unspoken are the assumptions of psychoanalytic model.

5) Refugee frame.  It’s a story of a mother who fled Cuba to “find freedom and opportunity in America” for her son versus the story of a 6 year old boy’s ignorance and innocence about such politics.  Is he old enough to ask for political protection?  Was it really his journey or his mothers?

6) Father comes Searching for Son frame:   Juan M. Gonzalez has now come to this country as the Miami family requested, he has arrived in Washington DC and has begun topassionately plead for his son versus the Miami family who continues to call for press conferences at last minute to accuse him of being abusive and son living in fear.

7) Federal Government or State Government Frames: This is a matter for the Federalgovernment..  No, this is a case about the local state governments.

Talk about a Frame War!  We certainly have a war of frames when it comes to this story.  If you watch, read, or listen to the latest developments of the case here in early April, 2000, the events, news presses, motions in the courts and counter-motions, General Attorney Janet Reno and the INS statements about the son being reunited with his father, etc. you can see a Frame War on a larger level playing out before our eyes.  So we ask:

Who’s Right?

Who’s Wrong?

Who’s got the best solution?

Now as with most Frame Wars on most levels — dialogue, reason, and “seeking first to understand” seems to play a very small part of the ongoing frame war.  Accordingly, the “positioning” of various interest groups around the boy has made him increasingly (as most people recognize) a “political football.”   Suddenly, in spite of thousands and tens-of-thousands of other refugees and cases before the INS Elian has become an icon of these frames.

What I’ve noticed severely missing in all of the discussions and panels is that everybody jumps straight into content and almost no one deals with the larger and higher context.  That is, with the frames that people are using as filters through which to see this story.  And what results from this?

Mostly positioning.  I have heard very few true dialogues, dialogues which seemed reasoned and which you could characterize as involving thoughtful listening.  Almost all have been characterized by positioning, side-taking, arguing for a position.

Yet until we can, as a people, step back, examine our operating frames and talk about the values, criteria, and reasoning processes that lead us to conclusions all of our “talk” typically degenerates to monologues of Point and Counter-Point.  And so with most of the so-called “talk” shows, they so frequently degenerate into talking over each other and shouting at each other shows.  Sensational.  But not very productive.

Should we use the frame of Family First and a Father-son Relationship?

Should we use Political Freedom Frame?

Should we set the highest frame Castro’s (assumed) blackmailing?

Should we use Cuban Immigration Law?

Since the highest frame always governs, whatever we use (consciously or unconsciously) will dominate.  If we can’t even step back and talk about that then we will forever find ourselves in a fight at the level of details and never understand what informs and governs the thinking of those who differ.

I refer to the Gonzalez case, not to solve it or even to offer my own opinion (although like most people I certainly have my own).   I use it rather as a marvelous example of how lack of attention to the Frame Level locks people into talking without communicating, and positioning without dialoguing.  This prevents higher level understandings.  It prevents the harder work of thinking through the hierarchy of levels of frames and making hard decisions about which to privilege.

Most of us (I’m assuming) believe that:

  • Father’s ought to have the ultimate right and responsibility over their families, especially over a child stranded in another country.
  • Communism and Police States don’t offer the kind of opportunities a child would get in America.
  • The mother was brave to risk fleeing Cuba and did so for her son.
  • People ought to have their day in court.
  • Psychological states should be considered when dealing with human relationships and emotions.
  • People do use situations to forward their agendas.
  • Abusive parents ought to be dealt with.
  • The longer something like this goes on, the harder it is on everybody.
  • Justice ought to be rendered swiftly.
  • The best interests of a child ought to be considered.
  • It’s not the USA’s role to police every family or every state in the world.
  • There are good parents in bad countries, just as there are bad parents in good countries.

But which is the highest frame?  Which frame ought to be embedded and nestled inside of another?

My recommendations at this moment in time:

  • Listen to the frame about this as people talk, argue, position, reason, passionately plea for this or that side.  Listen, in fact, for the purpose of detecting the operating frames that people use.
  • Listen also to detect leverage points, that is, agreement frames and the nudges of transformation.  As a meaning-making Neuro-Semanticist, it will put your skills to the test. After all, NLP and Neuro-Semantics does apply to these kinds of everyday experiences.
  • When you listen to any given interview does the person operate from just one frame or from many?  How are the frames organized and sequenced?  What determines that?
  • How open-minded is the person to another point of view?

Monday, April 24, 2000
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.


As we all know, our frames of mind (i.e. meta-states) govern what we see and hear and how we process information.  Depending on the frame that we bring to a subject (i.e., how we meta-state it), we can play all kinds of games.

In the Elian Gonzalez case (which seemed destined to stay in the news for months), we have a case of those who see it in terms of Family, Politics, Justice, Power, etc.  In the last few days, however, a new question has arisen–

Will Elian be traumatized by the Events of his taking from the relatives home and restored to his father?

I want to respond to this as a psychologist who has “expert” status in the court system here in dealing with family therapy and the custody of children and also (and more importantly) from the perspective of Neuro-Semantics.   Accordingly, we now need to ask some other Framing Questions:

  • Will an event traumatize the boy?
  • Do events, in and of themselves, carry the power to “traumatize” at all?
  • What are the mechanisms in the human brain/ nervous system that creates this experience that we call “Trauma?”
  • What role do beliefs, ideas,  values, understandings, etc. play in this?

Almost every psychologist I’ve seen interviewed on CNN, FOX, CBNS and the mainstream news programs have expressed the old Psychoanalytic Frame and Behavioral Frame — Events, in and of themselves, traumatized.  If you have had an experience you have to be traumatized.  It will show up in some symptom.  If we don’t see symptoms, it means that the person is “in denial,” repressing, not being true, etc.

From the NLP and especially the Neuro-Semantic standpoint, this is utter non-sense.

An event, any event, is but a trigger.  In and of itself, it has no “meaning.”  “Meaning” does not and cannot exist “out there.”  It all depends upon a person’s Frame — beliefs, meanings, understandings, etc.  Pick an event, any event …

  • criticism, insult, rejection
  • firing from a job, downsizing,
  • economic distress, bankruptcy
  • rape, molestation, robbery
  • accidents, wars, fights, gangs
  • divorce, death, sickness, etc.

Does Everybody respond to such negative and traumatic events in the very same way?
Do some people come through distressful events in a resilient way?
Are there such a phenomena as “children of survival” like those who grew up in a war zone (as in Lebanon) and came out without the internal strategy of “learned helplessness?”
Did every Vietnam vet suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Does everyone diagnosed with cancer role over, give up, and pine away?
Does everyone divorced, raped, or widowed become crippled emotionally?
Does every millionaire who files for bankruptcy lie down and never try again?

The power to formulate, program, and structure human experience  our thoughts, feelings, states, coping skills, mastery skills, future, etc. does not lie in events but in our frames of mind about the events, the meanings that we construct about the events.

Martin Seligman studied “Learned Helplessness” (1975) and identified the three “Ps” that govern this most unresourceful strategy that creates depression and non-resilience.

P — Personal: “It’s about ME”

P — Pervasive: “It affects EVERYTHING about me.”

P — Permanent: “It will LAST FOREVER…”

Later he discovered he and his associates could reverse the effects of learned helplessness by reversing these Frames… and so he came up with “Learned Optimism” (1990).  Change the Frame and you change the Game.

Will Elian be traumatized?

It all depends.

It depends upon the maps (frames) that his father and others helps him to set in his mind.  It depends upon the mapping that he buys and embraces.  It depends upon what he believes and what he wants to believe.

To set the Frame that he will, inevitably, inescapably, and without question, “be traumatized” is to — well, set that frame.  And frames (whether a primary state or meta-state) involves state dependency and operate as self-fulfilling prophecies or expectations.

Yet when a person seems to lack that awareness as most of the psychologist’s I’ve seen interviewed, they then blindly establish a frame.  I hope Juan Migil doesn’t listen to that and does not set that frame for Elian.  I hope that he sets other frames:

You are loved and valued.

You had quite a journey, what have you learned?

Things happen but they do not determine your future.

Children are “resilient” precisely because they do not have their frames set very well yet.  This gives tremendous power to parents and those who help set the frames for them.  After all, when we are 6 years old and have little understanding of the world, ourselves, and little ego strength to figure things out, we rely upon and are highly susceptible to the Frames that others set.

For me, if the relatives of Elian burdened that child with Political Frames, they did him a real injustice.  If they burdened him with “You need to Fulfill the Dying Request of your Mother” frame, they put him at a real disadvantage.

Is that what it’s all about?  A situation like this can be about almost anything– whatever someone wants to make this “about.”  This describes our meaning-making power.

Frame Wars in the News —
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Dear Sergio:

Thanks for the great questions and insights that you offered.  True enough, I provided much of the beginning presentation from the USA point of view.  We all live within various cultural, political, religious, philosophical frames and we also live within nested frames-within frames.

And of course, detecting where the line occurs between political frames and ideological frames is also one of choice in how we punctuate things.  I find it absolutely interesting that the Political frames between Republicans and Democrats in the USA seems to shift on the Elian Story.  Whereas Republics usually take the conservative view and hold up the ideology of Family First and Family Rights, the more liberal side of the continuum, the Democrats tend to raise that ideology on this one while the Republics tend to see it strictly in terms of Communism versus Capitalism; Police State versus Freedom, etc.

True enough, stepping outside of our own frame of reference and frame of mind about any of these levels and dimensions is very difficult.  And it does indeed evoke strong emotions…  the emotions, in fact, which in Frame Games I posit as actually within the arena of “The Game”  operates to keep us faithful to our beginning frame.

You have offered some great questions, Sergio!

1) How do we know that we’ve gathered all the relevant frames about a question orproblem?

2) How do we check on the accuracy of our frame descriptions?

3) How do we escape the frame contamination of individual and cultural values?

4) Is Frame Detection only for the Intellectual?

#1  Frame Detection.

This is an extensive subject… I have several chapters in the book on this and many, many pages of exercises in the Training Manual.  Higher frames do stand out so that they are salient.. And because they operate as Attractors in a Self-Organizing System … following “the energy” of a conversation whether in political debate, in therapy, or in dialogue with friends offers us a pretty dependable pathway.

So like Meta-Modeling what do you go for first when someone says, “I’m depressed.” Obviously we could start at the lower levels and get all of the unspecific verbs, nouns, and missing referents.  That gives some information.  But as I noted in both Spirit of NLP and The Secrets of Magic Bandler emphasized starting at the highest levels: Presuppositions, Cause-Effects, Complex Equivalences. So here.  Using the Model of Levels of Thought/Mind (which is the heart of Meta-States), we use the principle that the higher levels drive the lower levels.  So we go there first and follow the “energy” of a person’s passions, and implied values.

Such exploration is an art.  Whether with an individual in psychotherapy, an interviewer on TV, a modeler of cultural level structures, we eventually develop a “feel” and “intuition” for the pieces to go for that govern the experience.

#2  Accuracy.

We test it.  NLP calibration teaches us to check it out.  There are patterns about eye accessing cues but it doesn’t fit for everybody.  There’s always exceptions.

So here.  Reflecting a frame back, summarizing, checking the congruency between behaviors and beliefs, these give us a way to test things.

We begin from the presupposition: every behavior makes sense.  Given some frame, some understanding, some map then we backtrack it to the Frames.

#3  Frame Free?

I don’t think that’s possible.  We can practice the exercises that we use in Meta-States for “Losing your mind and coming to your senses” (Perls) but that’s only in order to gain a little bit of mental/emotional freedom for some new exploring.    None of us leave home without our frames.  We can’t.  Nor would we want to.

Which brings us to the first Exercise we do in Frame Games:  “QUALITY CONTROLLING OUR GAMES”  (the NLP process of running an Ecology Check on things).

#4  Is Frame Detection only for the Intellectual?

Depends on what you mean by “intellectual people.”  It does take “mind” and the exercising and working of the mind to do so.  It does not necessarily take the kind of “education” that we experience in school.  School education can even sabotage both Intelligence and Frame Detection.

I’ve already mentioned the “emotional” side of frames… the “feel” for the “energy” of the higher attractors that govern and self-organize our lives via beliefs.  There is so much more to be said about all of this.  Our next Frame Game Trainings in DC, Austin and Tampa  (April and May) will devote 3 full days to these concerns.

What frame games have you played today?

Did you have fun?

Did they serve you well?

Would you recommend them to your children?

What frame games would you have preferred to have played?

April 25, 2000

By Journalist GinaMaria Jerome

Tampa, Florida:  In a recent forum, Dr. Michael Hall, noted author and behavioral psychologist, disputed the popular theory that the events resulting in the forcible taking of Elian Gonzalez would permanently traumatize the child.

“Almost every psychologist I’ve seen interviewed on CNN, FOX, CBNS, and other mainstream news programs (ABC, NBC, CBS) have expressed the old psychoanalytic frame and behavioralistic viewpoint, that events, in and of themselves, traumatize,” Hall said.

“Yet events by themselves, do not traumatize,” Hall continued. “You have to take the event and give it an interpretation that frames it in terms of the trauma being personal, permanent, and pervasive.”

According to Dr. Hall, the psychologists who are predicting a gloomy future for Elian as a child doomed for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and therefore highly-likely to suffer a major depression, are actually participating in making those experiences happen. This, Hall said, is because as things are framed with that point of view, they plant this style of interpretation of permanent trauma as a likely possibility.

Dr. Hall calls this notion “utter nonsense.”

Events, he explained, do not enter into the brain or mind — only the ‘thoughts’ of those events. The individual must then map their understandings, beliefs, meanings, and values about events. These are what Hall refers to as “frames,” such “frames of reference,” “frames of awareness,” “frames of mind.”   “As we ‘frame’ them,” Hall said, “so we play out those frames.  This puts the major emphasis on our frames of reference and frames of mind as the determinators of our responses.”

“Framing Elian as a ‘victim,'” Hall went on, “is actually an attempt to support and further what I call ‘The Victim Frame Game.’ It’s one of the most prominent psychological games we play these days. We’re essentially saying, ‘If I think of myself as a victim and can get others to view me as a victim, I can get all kinds of sympathy, be excused of my negative emotions and behaviors, and not be expected to take effective action.’ The current predications of Elian’s future status, could well be affected the negative frames being predicted by psychologists and others who erroneously accept these concepts.”

What Elian also has on his side, Hall points out, is his age.  “Children are resilient, precisely because they do not have their frames set very well yet,” Hall explained.  “This gives tremendous power to Elian’s parents and others who will help to set those frames. They can choose to buy into the popular theory that Elian was a victim and was abused as a political ping pong in a vicious game, or they can re-frame his reference to show the triumph over the situation.” Hall noted that other  “children of survival,” such as those who grew up in a war zone (as in Lebanon), have come out without the internal strategy of “learned helplessness.”

“Elian’s experiences can be re-framed in a similar way, making him all the stronger and better for having this experience” Hall said.

So will Elian be traumatized by all the events?  It all depends.  Dr. Hall says that “it all depends upon the maps and frames that his dad and other family members provide him as a positive way to interpret things, and it depends upon the learnings that Elian himself buys and embraces.”

Dr. Michael Hall’s books include Mind-Lines: Lines for Changing Minds, Figuring Out People, The Structure of Excellence, Dragon Slaying, Meta-States, and more than a dozen others, which have been translated into several languages.  An international trainer, author, and speaker, Dr. Hall has helped hundreds of people to overcome trauma, re-frame their lives, and create a powerful existence.