As a 26-year professional in the conflict resolution field, I use questions as a primary tool in work as a mediator and facilitator. Asking questions allows me not only to clarify the issues (finding out what’s really on someone’s mind or what that person really wants or needs), but also to direct the conversation into productive paths when impasse looms and/or when people need to evaluate the consequences of reaching an agreement (or not). Mediators with other styles than my preferred facilitative style often tell parties what they should do or give opinions on the strength of a particular party’s case – usually to move a party or parties to reaching a resolution. Not only is that not my preferred style; I don’t think that is what a mediator or facilitator ought to do. We don’t own the process – the parties do! If they have a need to be told what to do, they can go to court, and a judge will provide that service. If they want an evaluation of their case, they should seek the advice of an attorney. They come to us so that they can be empowered to advance their own causes and find their own resolutions.
If I privately question the strength of a party’s case, I will ask questions to help him/her think about that. Here is an example illustrating this point:
Some years ago, I was mediating a case in small claims court that involved a contract dispute between two businessmen. The contract involved both written and verbal elements. One party was convinced his massive stack of paperwork would prove his case to the magistrate. (I knew from experience that the magistrate would never sort through all of those papers in the courtroom.) The other party was equally sure that his “good word” would convince the magistrate of the rectitude of his position. (In my experience, officers of the court usually like at least some actual evidence). What to do? Caucus!
I met with the man with the stack of papers. I said, “That’s an impressive amount of paperwork you have there.” He agreed that it was. I asked: “Are you sure that, within that stack, you have exactly the right piece of paper that will convince the magistrate that your position is the correct one?” He hesitated a moment and then assured me that he was certain that the magical document resided within the stack. I then met with the other party. I told him that I had no doubt that he could make a case before the magistrate that his word was good. However, I also said, “Boy, that other guy certainly has a lot of paperwork relating to this case.” He agreed that was true. I then asked: “Do you suppose, somewhere in that stack of papers, he has just the right piece of paper that might, to some small extent, call your word concerning this case into question?” Again, after a bit of hesitation, he assured me that it was impossible for such a piece of paper to exist. I brought the two gentlemen back into the room together. Within five minutes, they reached an agreement acceptable to both. I call this: Reality checking with questions. No one needed to tell either of these parties anything about his case – each was perfectly capable of doing his own analysis (with a little questioning from me).
The right line of questioning can also be used to pull two or more sides back from the brink of impasse. I will illustrate that technique in “Asking Questions Part II“.