Musician Amanda Palmer, with her intense arching eyebrows and alt-rock style, incited the audience of her viral TED video to get out there and ask for what they needed. A donation. A couch to sleep on. A little help to get from one spot on their journey to the next. People are afraid to ask for what they need, she explains, afraid of being that person who burdens those around them with uncomfortable requests. Fear not! argues Palmer enthusiastically. On the contrary: asking is liberating.“By asking you connect with people. And when you connect with people they want to help you. Asking makes you vulnerable.”
The vulnerability of asking opens a door for people to engage, and a way of creating a relationship in which you, the asker, might receive your assistance or your answer, while the asker is also offered something emotionally meaningful. Those relationships will take you both forward.
But Palmer’s insight that sent her video buzzing across the internet is relevant beyond situations of material needs. It’s not only cash or a couch that requires the bravery to ask questions.
All too often conflict is predicated on and fueled by lurking misunderstandings, unspoken complaints, or an inability to view and understand the situation from the view of another. Locked in respective worlds of meaning, disputants find themselves unable to build bridges. Asking couragous questions can open up and reveal differences in perception, creating the possibility for establishing shared ground or at least sussing out what is needed for a positive development in the conflict.
However, asking is difficult when there is conflict, and it grows more difficult as the conflict stretches on or intensifies. It can exhaust people’s personal capacities to extend the vulnerability required for asking.
In mediation, asking questions is one of the mediator’s key tasks. Coming in as a third-party neutral releases him or her from the constraining effect of the conflict, making it more feasible to take on a position of vulnerability. A mediator can ask questions about things that both parties might have assumptions about, things that seem ‘known’ to disputants but that are actually important points of difference or emotion. By being able to take on a position of non-knowing, free from attachment to a certain version of the relevant reality, a mediator’s questions can draw out the content of a conflict, dislodging entrenched opposition and unlocking ways forward.
As a mediator I understand how powerful the art of asking can be, and I would encourage you to take Palmer’s advice: ask, expose a little vulnerability, and cultivate connections through it. However, on the same token I also know that in difficult conflicts people may need to manage their vulnerability – this is where a mediator can help. If you and your counterpart are both too emotionally exhausted to take that step, consider letting a third-party neutral take those first steps for you, with you, on the way to resolution.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.