Asking questions is a major part of a mediator’s job, and it meets several important objectives. First, it enables the other person to feel as though they are being heard. Second, it allows both sides to begin uncovering the source of the conflict. Third, it provides an opportunity for the emotion underlying the dispute to be expressed. Finally, it allows the trust building process to begin.
Open-ended questions are among the best types of questions to ask when attempting to resolve a conflict. Rather than the interrogation-style questions, like those asked in a court room during cross examination, open-ended questions allow both parties to gain more insight. Alternatively, closed questions represent anything you could answer completely with a simple “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions involve active participation and discussion, and prompt more detailed answers. They typically begin with what, how, who, or even where, depending on context. Be cautious with “why” questions because they can put people on the defensive. Asking open-ended questions helps you to remain in non-defensive and nonviolent communication because they allow you to consider what the other person is thinking or feeling.
Here are three effective open-ended questions to use in conflict resolution:
This question comes with multiple variants that could be used, depending on the context: “What about that was important / hurtful / significant / bothering / upsetting to you?” This question guides the other person to get to the heart of the matter. Skillful mediators ask the right follow-up questions to help both parties arrive at that main point themselves. Once you arrive at that point, both parties can begin to address it and work toward a resolution.
This question puts you in another’s shoes by taking you out of the immediate conflict and inviting you to think about the other person’s position and where they are coming from. Asking this question brings forth more logical and critical thinking rather than emotional thinking. It allows the parties to move past the emotional and defensive reactions and reach the heart of the conflict instead. When you try to understand how the other person could potentially be right, you must backtrack and view the conflict in a more objective fashion. This question is especially beneficial to the party who is upset or defensive.
Asking this question helps both parties consider what could be gained from the events leading up to the conflict, and perhaps even from the conflict itself. There is value in the communication if you can come away from the conflict or the mediation having learned something. This type of question is especially beneficial for workplace conflicts, as it allows coworkers or teams to avoid similar issues in the future.
Sometimes, asking the right questions can feel uncomfortable if one or both parties are emotionally charged. When a mediator asks these questions, he or she might cause vulnerable feelings to arise. However, this vulnerability helps to create a connection between parties and begin the process toward resolution. By asking the right questions, a mediator helps you to work through the emotions of the conflict and move toward more open and receptive communication.