The Aries Framework

Practices and Tools for Mindful Leadership and Communication


Making sense of contentious issues and building shared meaning

Aries Blobs Graphic Mindful LeadershipWhether in our working lives, in our community activities, or in our personal lives, most of us deal with contentious issues.  These are issues that those involved view differently and for which there are no established procedures. These issues have hidden dimensions, such as unsurfaced assumptions, unspoken interests, unnamed feelings, and knowledge that people hold but don't bring forward. Contentious issues are messy. They tend to be associated with strongly felt emotions, threat, and defensive behaviors.

To make headway and achieve meaningful change with such issues, we need to communicate mindfully: to be in the moment, open and receptive to other views, able to delve safely into the hidden aspects, adept at speaking so as to be both persuasive but also reflective, and capable of integrating different views into shared understandings.

ARIES - for Attending, Reflecting, Inquiring, Expressing, and Synthesizing - is a set of practices and tools for enabling and supporting mindful communication and change with contentious issues. ARIES assists the person/group working with the problem (the “case owner”) to better understand the variety of stakeholder perspectives and the emerging possibilities and to communicate so as to help build shared meaning and thereby release energy for change.


Tapping hidden intelligence


Contentious issues imply multiple perspectives - stakeholders making sense of the problem in different ways - and hidden intelligence. This is what people believe, value, feel, and have knowledge about relevant to the issue which they are not - at this point - speaking about.

These hidden, implicit mental resources are akin to the portion of an iceberg below the waterline. 

The Aries FrameworkThis hidden intelligence represents a potentially huge resource to aid working through the problem, if only we can tap into it. This is difficult - since hidden intelligence implies risk and threat - but it is not impossible.

We’re more likely to be able to gain access to this hidden intelligence to the extent that we can create a climate of safety for ourselves and others. This in turn requires that we recognize our own view as one of a range of views on the problem, and put the quality of interaction in particular moments ahead of task achievement. These behaviors are at the heart of mindful communication on contentious issues.

Communicating mindfully with contentious issues

When we communicate mindfully, we put a premium on:

  • Listening and observing acutely, and in particular differentiating between what can be discerned directly, and inferences or conclusions we arrive at
  • Considering how others might construct the problem, allowing that they do so in ways that seem reasonable to them
  • Asking questions to better understand other perspectives, including delving into the hidden territory while seeking to avoid sparking undue threat
  • Speaking to wider interpretations of the problem (rather than regarding our own analysis as “the” truth)
  • Framing understandings of current reality and of a preferred future with the problem overcome in ways that draw on and integrate the diversity of stakeholder perspectives.

This approach is key to working through contentious issues with others to bring about change. In this way, we stand to gain a richer sense of what is real currently with the problem and to clarify a preferred future with the issue overcome - or at least with substantial headway made. Building shared understandings about current reality and preferred futures elicits energy for change.

While we might be attracted to this mode of working, the reality in most organizations and groups is that task-oriented behavior is encouraged, along with a focus on the more concrete aspects of problems. The emphasis, understandably enough, is on getting the job done.

We need a framework to support our efforts toward change with contentious issues. This is where ARIES comes in.

ARIES Practices and Tools

As practices the ARIES elements are akin to golf or tennis. If you “work at your game,” you can expect to progressively become more proficient. Intellectual understanding of itself is not enough. Repeated application and practice is critical.

The tools, however, are lightweight and flexible so as to support even novices in communicating mindfully on contentious issues. The framework also offers depth for advanced practitioners.


The ARIES elements



Attending arrow

Being in the moment, fully present with others. Putting the quality of attention as prior to task in particular moments

Observation and Inference tool

A key is to ask, what is directly discernable, observable with this incident/episode – as there can be multiple inferences for any single observation


Reflecting arrow

Making sense of multiple perspectives. Interpreting what we perceive, as a basis for testing and intervention


The Reflection Matrix

A structure for identifying possible hidden assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge for those with an interest in a contentious problem including the case owner


Inquiring arrow

Asking questions mindfully to learn about others’ views on a contentious problem

Question-type structure

5-type question structure for asking questions that get to the underlying issues. E.g. “Exploring” questions invite people to talk about what might be otherwise hidden for them, such as, “Please tell me what’s really important to you here?”


Expressing arrow

Putting forward our own views mindfully, in the context of an appreciation of other views, to contribute to building shared meaning. Disclosing appropriately some of what 
you have previously held back on 

Expressing structure

5-part structure for preparing what you might say on a problem. A key is to locate what you say within a wider appreciation of the problem, rather than seeing your own views as the only truth


Synthesizing arrow

Crystallizing the challenge the group faces in dealing with a problem

The Transformational Challenge

One of 4 types of synthesizing intervention, the Transformational Challenge names current reality and a preferred future with a problem overcome, in a way that can be held out for testing and refinement.



The framework, originally described in Don Dunoon’s book In the Leadership Mode, can be applied:

  • With virtually any contentious issue or problem having a strong human component. Examples include stuck change efforts, differences about direction or priorities, interpersonal conflicts, and many performance-related issues
  • Flexibly –with either the full suite of tools utilized for considering an issue, or with the various components used separately
  • By both individuals and groups, in making sense of, and acting on, contentious problems.


Potential benefits of using the ARIES approach include:

  • Getting to the underlying issues, while reducing the risks of doing so
  • Involving more people in the work of leadership and change
  • More effectively utilizing potentially available but latent mental resources
  • Making substantial headway on issues previously seen as intractable
  • Building commitment and energy for working toward change.

For more information:

On using ARIES tools to open-up contentious problems from multiple perspectives and frame possible interventions, click here
On “case story” examples of applying ARIES, click here
On a template you can use (subject to license conditions, see bottom of this page) to think-through contentious issues that you are facing, click here
On Don Dunoon’s ARIES-related programs and services, click here


Creative Commons License
ARIES Framework by Don Dunoon, New Futures is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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