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When answering questions on Stack Exchange, some of us challenge the assumptions of the author. These frame challenges can often be quite popular answers. This popularity, however, can simply be a measure of entertainment value, and not quality. Often the popular ones are even scolding the OP, making the OP the last person to find the answer useful. No matter how entertaining a good telling off can be, part of what we are doing when answering questions is trying to help people. If the people who need the answer aren't willing to use it because of the tone, then we aren't really helping them.

When writing a frame challenge, what are some techniques I can use to make them easier to swallow? I am aware of the technique to start any negative feedback with a positive note. What is an effective way to do that when there isn't always valuable insight to be positive about in the original question? How do I keep my style and tone as amenable as possible?

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    Sometimes, you need to clarify the assumptions the OP has made or failed to address in their question. Sometimes the OP hasn't considered something and you pointing it out is actually helpful. You can't measure how well someone will respond to criticism and you have no way of reading their mind. Just do your best to explain the flaw while keeping the OP entertained long enough to not fall asleep. – Shadowzee Jun 14 at 5:09
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    I imagine that you are not interested in the "popularity" value of the frame challenge, rather in the phrasing it in a useful conflict-avoiding manner. – NofP Jun 14 at 10:44
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    I came here to flag this question but found out that this question is so meta it can remain out of meta. – Mindwin Jun 14 at 15:46
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    @Shadowzee that is a good answer, please post it as such instead of a comment! – Captain Man Jun 14 at 21:08
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    I for one would love a good frame challenge to my question. – bruglesco Jun 14 at 21:10
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Be Socrates

In my view the champion of frame challenges is Socrates. His famous method always starts with an attempt at a frame challenge.

The success of the Socratic method stands on the basis that it is based on logic, and it leads to check if a frame challenge exists on the basis of logical contradictions. Socrates poses a lot of importance of factual data, and little importance to beliefs. In fact, he often leads the other party to agreeably reconsider their beliefs on the basis of factual evidence.

Also, when arguing a frame challenge, steer clear of first-person POV's recounts of personal experiences.

...meanwhile in the world of SE

To reword it in the world of SE, if the OP sets some assumptions, a general direction and asks a question to achieve a certain goal, we can ask whether there exist a path that links the two and if the path goes along the stated direction.

The obvious case is that there exists such a path, in which case your frame challenge would be out of place.

If the path does not exist, then:

  1. show that the path does not exists, i.e. given the assumption and following the desired direction, the outcome is very unlikely (if not outright impossible) to be the requested goal.
  2. ask whether the assumption is based on facts, or whether the direction is based on facts. If both are factual, then the goal as such is unattainable: see below frame challenge the goal.
  3. if the assumption is based on facts, state an objectively logical sequence that goes from the assumption to the goal, but follows a different direction: see below frame challenge the direction.
  4. if the direction is based on facts: see below frame challenge the assumption.
  5. if neither assumption nor direction are factual: see below imagination is your limit.

Challenging frames

In general

A rule of thumb of conflict avoidance is to steer clear of adjectives that carry a judgment. It is perhaps the best example of when "show not tell" can make a difference. If you want the reader to conclude that a certain statement is wrong, you need to show it starting from the facts. Telling alone does not prove it. Also, stay clear of faulty generalizations and other types of logical fallacies: in real life, as in fiction, they are great to raise the tension, but detract from the argument you wish to make.

The goal.

This is the hardest to frame. The reason being that the OP is about achieving it, and the author has invested their time and emotions in asking how to reach it. A first person POV with personal experiences is prone to the critique of being anecdotal, no statistical significance, or N=1. On the other hand, a dry third-person POV presenting a series of purely logical steps of the type "if A is true then B is true" makes it easier for the author to follow your reasoning, and to apply it to their question. A successful argument sticks to the author question, free from judgement, and follows it until the contradiction point, where you simply stick to the non contradicting path and reach a different conclusion than the stated goal. There is no need to judge, nor to rub it in the author's face. Perhaps, as Socrates does sometimes, suggest reconsidering, and enjoy your upvotes.

The direction

In general, this follows the same advice as challenging the frame of the goal. It is perhaps easier to discuss as the direction is not in the present (like the assumption) and it is not part of the desired outcome, in which the author is emotionally invested. A trick Socrates does sometimes, if I recall correctly, is to gently steer the direction while the dialogue goes on. He could have steered it from the start, but by doing it gently, he causes less attrition. In SE terms, stick to the assumption, follow the direction and identify the contradiction. Instead of changing direction, correct it slightly so that you get closer and closer to the goal while at each iteration of your logical reasoning you continue steering the direction.

The assumption

Challenging the assumption is equivalent to challenging to ability of the author to understand what they already have at hand, be it their situation, or the hypothesis of their mathematical problem. This is difficult as it may quickly turn into a judgement on the author. Third person POV, avoidance of adjectives are the obvious tools. Also, as in the case of challenging the direction, iterating over the same logical sequence with small changes between iterations, until the goal is reached and the direction is kept unchanged.

Imagination is the limit

When there is no factual evidence, it all becomes simply a writing challenge: write a series of logical events that lead to a given conclusion, following, or not following some initial cue and general plot. The challenge? The style: write it in an iron-clad reasoning, Third-person, impersonal POV, without using any adjectives or adverbs. If you are reading this, you probably are on Writing.SE and you know how to write that.

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    Quote of the day on "this happened to me": when someone asks a question, they are usually looking for an answer and not for a chapter of your biography. It sounded spot on, I had to share. – NofP Jun 14 at 10:39
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    It isn't any different when answering without a frame challenge. Have robotic objectivity. Use facts. Avoid saying I and you. Tell them what there is and what there isn't. Link that 'is' to a Wiki page. And now enjoy not getting upvotes or ANY comments. Nice is boring. – Mazura Jun 15 at 1:58
  • @Mazura Precisely: why should there be a quality difference between frame challenges and any other type of answers? – NofP Jun 15 at 12:00
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Along with balancing positive and negative feedback, it's helpful to stick to 'I' responses, rather than 'You should do X' type responses.

I try to frame my responses using my own experiences as references. So I'll say, when I was in this situation, I did XYZ which resulted in ABC, which was helpful to me because of blah blah blah.

The OP is less likely to feel criticised and can take or leave the response depending on whether they feel their circumstances are similar. They can think, well that wouldn't work for me because of XYZ, but I can see why it worked for you.

But it's easy to forget yourself at times, especially when responding to something you're passionate about. And words are blunt instruments when they aren't accompanied by tone and NVC. Which is why you should be even more cautious, even more courteous and polite, when writing anonymously on the internet. It's an arena where people are far more bullish than they would dare to be face-to-face.


EDIT:

Reading @jpmc26 comments, I realised I’d made an assumption in my answer, responding according to my personal field. To clarify:

If you are writing a frame challenge in a field where there are right and wrong answers, you are on more stable ground, but personally, I would still word responses courteously pointing them to research and asking if they have considered XYZ or read ABC.

However, if you’re in the writing arena, particularly creative writing, there are seldom right and wrong answers. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another and being bullish with ‘You should do X, you should do Y’ type responses is generally considered very poor form. So much so, that in some of the groups I belong to, packed to the rafters with tens of thousands of writers, it’s actually against the rules to post in that way. Telling someone what will work for them, as opposed to sticking to what worked for you, is considered prescriptivism.

So, the above response does depend on the field, I have a creative writing bias. Also, the OP is clearly sensitive to how bullish frame challenges can be and the whole point is to find an alternative way of responding to them.

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    In general I would strongly advice people to refrain from writing answers in the first person, but frame challenges are probably one of the few exceptions where making it more personal can indeed benefit the communication efficiency. – David Mulder Jun 14 at 15:12
  • Sticking to "I" statements when you're discussing a field-wide accepted best practice is an awful idea. It wrongly connotes that the author is only stating their own opinion, rather than that the practice is widely recognized. The reverse is true when a practice is known to be detrimental. It makes even less sense in math or science, when the asker has grossly misunderstood something. – jpmc26 Jun 17 at 4:16
  • You also general want the asker to feel they've gone awry when you frame challenge because they have. This is an unavoidably unpleasant feeling, and we should not be afraid to induce it. – jpmc26 Jun 17 at 4:20
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    @jpmc26 I agree, in certain fields where there are right and wrong answers, you do want to steer the poster away from detrimental practices. In my field, however, there are rarely right or wrong answers and anything other than 'I' statements are considered prescriptivism and very poor form. I have edited my answer to clarify the bias in my field, an assumption on my part, based on the stack in which the question was posed. – GGx Jun 17 at 6:36
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Some general rules for frame challenges

1. Be nice. There's no point in being sarcastic, judgemental, or rude. This is also mentioned in the Stack Exchange Code of Conduct, so it should not even have to be said.

2. Be empathetic and reflective. What might be obvious to you is not obvious to the OP, and you might also be missing something in the intent of the question. You might be misunderstanding the question because you cannot see it from the OP's perspective. So try to do that, and if you still think you have a valid criticism, try to explain where you are coming from.

  • In particular, remember that analyzing an idea always destroys it in some way. Especially taken out of context. If the OP asks for help in writing a surprising scene or a joke, for example, it will always sound kind of "lame" because the OP has to explain the scene instead of showing it to us. Imagine some guy asked us "I want to make a joke where the punchline is that fishes are surrounded by water without knowing it, how to set that up so it becomes funny/insightful?". Yeah, I'd also be inclined to do a frame challenge here, telling them to write a better joke. But that is one of the most famous speeches by David Foster Wallace (This Is Water) and in context it works great and even seems profound. Remember that the actual frame that should be challenged could be that of your imagination.

3. Show research. Especially if your critique is politically/scientifically motivated, be very specific about your issue and cite, if possible, research that has been done on the subject. An example is the Bechdel test - if the OP asks something about their dialogue between two women about a man, that might not be indicative of their whole book. But if you worry that it might be, then don't simply say "women do other things than talk about men, you know". Tell the OP why statistically this is a problem that exists in media, and how it might be cool to be the exception to the rule. If you don't make it sound judgemental, you might even get them enthusiastic about the idea.

4. Answer the question. If you write a frame challenge, you might be inclined to not answer the question at all, since you don't think it's a good one. You better have a good reason for that. In general you should try to answer the question within the given frame as best you can, and then explain why you think the question is problematic. There are exceptions - "How to portray Hitler as the good guy?" probably requires a frame challenge, but not an attempt at a serious answer. But if the question is "how to have only LGBT characters without making it feel like a gimmick", the least you can do is to seriously think about the question within the given frame, and maybe come up with the idea "have it take place at a gay club" before explaining why you still think adding cis-heteros might be beneficial.

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    For number 4, I'd say it's more important to make sure the reader understands "Why this answer might be useful to someone asking this question". The question doesn't need to be answered in a frame challenge (the other answers should cover that). But a frame challenge may be necessary (because someone asking the question might not be aware of an alternative method or similar issue). The point being even if the OP doesn't find it useful, at least one person looking at this question for an answer may find it useful. – Tezra Jun 14 at 19:20
  • "In general you should try to answer the question within the given frame as best you can, and then explain why you think the question is problematic." No, you should not tell someone how to escape their example string to make it safe to concatenate into the SQL. You should tell them to use parameterized queries. Many Stack Exchanges are professional or practical, and enabling bad practices is irresponsible and contributes negatively to the quality of a field's work. – jpmc26 Jun 17 at 4:25
  • @jpmc26, I think what you're describing may be one of those exceptions to the rule I was talking about. But most questions aren't so patently wrong that they should not be answered at all. I can also imagine a situation in which the person asking this kind of question knows that what he wants to do is bad practice, but feels that he/she needs to do it anyway. I think you're reaching if you say that giving an answer is irresponsible if the very same post also contains a well-argued frame challenge. It implies that you have no faith at all in that person's judgement. – PoorYorick Jun 17 at 6:33
  • @PoorYorick "The rule" it is much rarer than "those exceptions." "It implies that you have no faith at all in that person's judgement." Very little I see on these sites leads me to have faith in the asker's personal judgement. Most askers on SO are pretty lost. That's not a surprise, since people who aren't usually don't need to ask to figure out the answer. Heck, many answerers are. Also, as an asker, I leave my personal judgement aside because I'm often on the wrong track if I have to ask a question. Doing so is a prerequisite to being able to accept the best answer, even if I don't like it. – jpmc26 Jun 17 at 6:40
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I write some frame challenges; I suppose the technique I'd advocate is "teacher."

Basically a frame challenge is necessary if somebody is asserting something that is false, or too narrow an interpretation of a rule, or a misunderstanding of a rule (such as 'show don't tell').

The point definitely IS to educate the OP, and that demands telling the OP they are wrong about their assertion. But like a good teacher, you can state that simply and without insulting the intelligence or education of the student. Presume they are sensitive, and trying to learn (at least until they prove otherwise).

So I'd start with something simple: "I don't think you understand this rule", or "Typically this rule is not interpreted so literally," or "here is where I think you might have misunderstood this."

We do not educate students by insulting them, but by understanding how they are thinking, where that may have gone wrong, and then by correcting the flaw in their thinking we remove not only their current stumbling block, but all future stumbling blocks that might arise from the same misconception.

When I was in graduate school one of my student jobs was tutoring undergraduate calculus and statistics. I applied this same principle to that kind of tutoring, time and again, resulting in ace students time and again. If they had difficulty with an example problem it was always a result of a misunderstanding, sometimes going back to basic algebra or geometry. Giving them examples of how to solve the problem seldom helped, what "fixed" them was me digging for the fundamental flaw in their thinking, by asking them questions, and correcting that flaw.

That is what we need to do here. The necessity of a frame challenge is born of the OP's fundamental misunderstanding of how a rule works or what writing is about. The social niceties others have written about are fine, but in the end you do have to tell the OP they have misunderstood something, and this is the right way to look at it, and here is how that clears up your issue.

I stick to the facts. Treat their mental model of the writing process as a machine to be fixed. It does no good to insult a machine for not working right, you just need to identify the problem and correct it so it can work properly. Keep your own emotions out of it, and provide the lesson the student needs or failed to get or misinterpreted.

And remember we write to a specific OP but for a general audience; we want others to understand the general lesson; not just one example of a specific fix for a specific problem. It is possible they can generalize from that, but the post will be more effective if you provide the generalization for them.

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It helps to remember that people are here looking for advice, not orders. Also to remember that what works for you may not work for someone else.

I'd recommend wording your answers along the lines of "Have you considered X?" or "Here's something author X did, you could try that" and less along the lines of "You have to do this" or worse, a rant and "You can't." Even if something seems impossible for the OP's specific case, maybe you have an answer that will work for a more general one.

As GGx says, if you need clarification or more information, you can always ask in the comments section.

As for the scolding...

If something in a post is upsetting you, please, please put down the keyboard and do something else until you're feeling calmer. Take a walk, split some firewood, whatever you need. It can be very satisfying to destroy someone with a well-worded rant, but that's not why people are on here. Sometimes I wonder if our Questions Per Day would be higher if people didn't attack the OP in their "answers".

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