Association for Conflict Resolution's Blog

The Artful Use of Questions in Mediation

Posted in Uncategorized by Association for Conflict Resolution on May 28, 2010

The presenter for this session, a mediator and instructor from Ireland, provided a useful “topology” and review of the questions mediators use to suit various situations and clientele. She reminded us, at the outset, how far we’ve come from the mechanistic view of the world held by Descartes, where the mind and body were seen as entirely separate, to the contemporary “systems” view we all know today, predicated on a holistic, integrated, and relationship-based construct.

It’s this systemic outlook, of course, which gives rise to mediation as an interrogatory artform.

“In systemic mediation, the mediator’s expertise is a catalyst for change in the parties’ thinking and behavior. The mediator creates an atmosphere for changes through questioning.

“Questions are important only in light of the answers they evoke.

“When the mediator asks a question, the party is responsible for the answer. This keeps power with the party and prepares them for making decisions.”

As Albert Einstein once said, “The specific problems we face cannot be solved using the same patterns of thought that were used to create them.”

Here’s a quick run-down of the question types so useful in mediation:

Lineal Questions:

  • Triggers a cause-and-effect reply and is asked for clarification (who, what, when, where why, how). Straightforward about facts and causes.
  • Be careful about not being judgmental when asking a lineal question.
  • Approach with curiosity, rather than as a detective.
  • Ex: “How long have you known each other?”

Strategic Questions:

  • The desired answer determines the form of question.
  • Often implicitly proposes options for changing the situation.
  • The answer may be obvious, but it needs to be said so people can grapple with it.
  • Ex: “What will happen in the long run if you continue to spend at your current rate of spending?”

Reflexive Questions:

  • Jolts clients into new ways of looking at their predicaments by examining them in an unexpected light.
  • Allows alternative meanings that are healing or enhance self-understanding.
  • Allows clients to mobilize their own knowledge.
  • Forces client to ‘slow down’ and reflect on circumstances.
  • Ex: “What was happening for you as you walked in the door that day?”

Circular Questions:

  • Invites people to think about themselves not as mere passive objectives but as participants in a dynamic dance of human interactions.
  • Concerns how people deal with the fact they’re not alone in the world; has them think about the wider sense and meaning of what they’re doing, and the people around them.
  • Difference is the central tenant of circular questioning—questions, for instance, that mark differences over time.
  • Can challenge assumptions that keep clients in the conflict-saturated story.
  • Creates new thinking that gives a different perspective on the conflict by asking questions that focus on the purpose and consequences of staying in conflict.
  • Takes into account a number of perspectives.
  • Ex. “How did you feel about this yesterday? What about five years ago?” “What brings you here?” How are you feeling about yourself? About the others?”

As the presenter notes, “A powerful question challenges assumptions, stimulates reflective thinking; is thought-provoking; generates energy and a vector to explore; channels inquiry; promises insight; is broad and enduring; touches a deeper meaning; and evokes more questions.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Mediation settings are rife with conflict, with one or both parties often in a state of conflict—and therefore in fight-or-flight mode.

“The mediator changes the nature of the instinctive reaction to conflict through the use of questions that get them to engage in contact. This is done by softening and changing the escalation and hardening of conflict, and asking questions that connect people to others.

“For example, ‘Are you saying that you are extremely frustrated and hurt that no matter what you do or say Joe does not take on board your concerns?’”

She concludes:

“Language in general, and questions in particular, are central to a mediator’s ability to enable conflicts to become constructive and new possibilities to emerge.

“Challenging ourselves and finding new ways to ask questions is central to our work as mediators.”


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