by Judy West


Asking a great question is powerful. By allowing others to discover answers for themselves, agreements are more successful, and change is perceived as more positive than if one tries to “tell” another what to do. In addition, families have specific language among themselves that an outsider won’t understand. Beyond the words spoken are key phrases and humor that is developed over years, bringing meaning to communication between the family members. An outside mediator can learn a lot about the family dynamic by asking great questions and listening to the responses. A recently developed method that works well in family mediations is called “Appreciative Inquiry.” It solicits responses from all participants in the family mediation and provides a pace and logical progression to address issues.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a technique that was first developed for use in corporations and workplaces to promote organizational change. It has since become a powerful tool to use in many other arenas where improvement and positive change are needed, such as trauma healing and recovery. Interpersonal relationships benefit from this tool also; it has the potential to be very useful within the dynamics of a family unit, due to the familiarity and long-term commitment between members. A family unit is like a mobile that hangs on a string. When properly designed, it floats in balance with weights and counterweights. When one piece is moved by touch or wind, the other pieces move also. When pieces are removed, the mobile tips, causing other weights to bounce and collide.

Because of this interdependence, it is very important for members to have a safe format for talking about important issues.   Appreciative Inquiry is a way of communicating that can be learned during the mediation process and used at any point in the future in new conversations/negotiations that arise.

Mother and daughter having an argumentIn Parent/Teen mediation, carefully crafted questions prepared by the mediator beforehand help direct the process and provide stimulation of ideas. This helps to determine the tone and meaning of certain questions.  Asking in this way conveys the most positive image to the listener and solicits a constructive response.  When working with Parents and Teens over a longer period of time, a mediator will eventually have a “bank” of questions to draw from. Some questions will evolve as being consistently successful in gaining a productive response. The questions that follow are sample questions only. As you work with the 4-D model described below, feel free to come up with your own questions. Ask a colleague or friend how they feel when you ask your questions.

Appreciative Inquiry consists of a 4-D model:

  • Discover what is. In the Discovery phase, participants dig for what is right and good, rather than focusing primarily on deficits.
  • Dream what could be. This is unlimited brainstorming, where participants speak up about every idea that might possibly work. No idea is discouraged.
  • Design what should be. Out of the list of ideas generated in the Dream stage, participants start to choose the best ideas to work with, in order to determine their potential.
  • Deliver what will be (Destiny). In this final stage, the most useful and practical ideas are selected for development and implementation.

Each of the four steps of Appreciative Inquiry may intersect and overlap at various points during the process of family mediation. It is important that the mediation progresses logically toward a constructive plan for moving forward. If effectively carried out, family members retrace successful times spent together and devise a plan to recapture previously strong bonds.

Discover, during the one-on-one session

While it is important to honor the tension that currently exists and to be aware of underlying issues that will be negotiated during the mediation process, the one-on-one session can be used to generate a vision of hope.  Equally important for discovering what needs to change is the ability to draw out the parties’ appreciation of what is already good about oneself, the other person and the relationship. Using carefully designed questions, the mediator can transform the problem-talk into possibility-talk. This sets an early expectation that the mediation will produce good changes by maximizing the good that already exists. Hope is possible because the seeds of success are already owned by the relationship.

Possible Questions to use in the one-on-one session

What is your favorite activity for fun and bonding during family times?

How would you describe the other participant (your parent/child) in the best possible terms?

What do you commonly hear others say about their good traits?

What character qualities do you appreciate in him/her?

What similar qualities in your parent/child do you also possess, or share in common?

What behaviors of yours bring out the best in your parent/child?

How would you describe the best experience that you and your parent/child have shared? What made it great? How did you feel about the relationship at that time?

What would you like to see your relationship develop into as the years go by?

How does the love you have for your parent/child affect the way you communicate with him/her?

What words of blessing can you speak to your parent/child?

Because we are powerful mirrors to the significant people in our lives, what reflection does your parent/child see in your mirror that they want to see more of?

Ask the participants to be thinking about what they are willing to share about their discoveries with the other party during the mediation process. Some thoughts that are expressed directly to the mediator might be too personal to share with others in the mediation. Let the parent or teen decide what they will share.

Discover during the Joint Mediation Session

The joint mediation session can be used to help the participants write a common positive history and make meaning of past and future events. Sometimes, it is helpful to write and refer to a timeline. In a family that is experiencing conflict, the past successes will seem to vanish, in light of the current challenges. Some of what is discovered in the one-on-one session can be shared by the participants during mediation to provide hope and repair ill-will.

Possible questions to use during the Joint Mediation session

If we wrote a timeline in completely positive terms, what would it look like?

To the parent: Can you name significant things that happened in each stage of your child’s growth during these times? What are your child’s best qualities? What are you most proud of when you think about your child’s character, personality, humor, and other aspects of him/her? What hopes have you held for your child’s future? Does your child also want what you hope for?

To the child: What positive impressions did you have about your father/mother when you were in preschool? Which of these qualities do you want to develop in your own life? What strengths have your parents demonstrated that have benefited you directly? What do you choose to do differently than your mom/dad?

Dream, during the one-on-one

A major part of mediation is the ability to expand the options to meet the underlying issues and needs of both parties. Assisting the parties to dream of what could be, through the use of specific questions, helps to generate options. Mediators commonly refer to this step as helping to create a “Goal Statement.” The mediator asks great questions and explores options that the parties generate.

A skilled mediator can use the one-on-one sessions to individually help the parent and child to look at options and explore paths on which each option might take them. For example, the child might not want to finish high school. She might refuse to go to traditional classes and only voluntarily participate in her cosmetology classes, through the technical program. She might not see any benefit in completing the high school math classes. The mediator can ask questions that address her dreams of being a hair designer and cosmetologist:

teenagers in schoolWhat classes do you enjoy? How do these classes relate to your dream of becoming a hairdresser? Do some of your classes interest you because of other potential careers you might find interesting?

Do you see any overlap in learning about geometrical shapes and angles and cutting hair with precision?

How do your high school classes benefit your life? Is high school more than learning? Do you have meaningful friendships and social connections? Are you active in any clubs or extra-curricular activities?

Can we list every possibility that you can think of for your future in the next five years? Don’t hold back; mention anything that is even remotely interesting as a possibility.

Is a high school diploma necessary to accomplish any of these interesting possibilities?

Questions for the parent in the one-on-one session:

If your child decides to not complete high school, what other talents does she possess that can be developed without benefit of a higher education?

What alternatives exist to the traditional school setting? Have you researched what it takes for entrance into a community college, such as a GED?

Do you know of adults who hated high school as a teen, only to go back to college as an adult and love the learning environment?

Does your child read or participate in other activities that promote intellectual stimulation and learning?

How can you best encourage her to become all that she is capable of? What words of blessing does she respond to?

Do you know successful adults who haven’t completed high school? What steps did they take to make a successful adult life? Would they be willing to share their story with your daughter?

Dream, during the Joint Mediation Session

After dreaming in the individual, one-on-one sessions, ask the participants to share their dreams with the other participants. What new ideas are created while listening to the other participants sharing their ideas? Typically, one thought leads to another, multiplying the potential options, until all possible ideas are expressed. Set a ground rule that no negative responses should be shared during this session. This is simply a time to generate possibilities, not evaluate options.


Evaluation starts during the Design phase, which is much more successful when there is a wide variety of ideas.  Design joint plans during the Joint Mediation Session. During the Design phase,  a multitude of ideas are available because of the work done in the Dream phase. Ask the participants to select several ideas about which they are most enthusiastic. Start to work with those ideas.

teen boy in vineyardAre there single, undeveloped ideas worth looking at in combination with others? Where might each of these possibilities lead? Which ideas are accepted by everyone? Deliver these ideas during the writing of the mediation agreement. Out of all the ideas worked within the Design phase, some stand out as definite choices for future action. These are ideas that will be implemented. Other ideas remain as good possible options. Within a family, there is value in merely acknowledging permission to pursue certain options in the future. Break down definite choices, permissible choices, and time frames for re-evaluation.


Definite choices are those that everyone commits themselves to. An important step is to identify who is taking responsibility for what. Ask participants to address what might happen if one member drops the ball. Anticipate the need for alternatives, should a first plan not work. For example, if a child is skipping most classes, it might be unrealistic to believe that they will go on to attend every class. One option might be to give five “Get Out of Jail Free” cards to be used during a specific period of time, allowing the teen to feel successful, even if she occasionally skips a class. Progress is being made while recognizing that perfection isn’t the goal.

Permissible choices are options agreed to with reservation, that allow for flexibility.  Respect for another’s choice can be discussed while understanding that there is no ownership in relationships. For example, consider a child who wants to pierce her belly button. Her parents are concerned about the risk of infection, and the clothing that she would wear in order to be able to show the new ornament. She might also express interest in tattoos, which may be particularly distasteful to the parents since they understand that today’s treasure might be tomorrow’s regret. Negotiating issues can bring about a mutually satisfying agreement: “You can pierce your nose (a low infection area), if you promise not to pierce or tattoo anywhere else.” Parents give their blessing, with reservation; allowing the teen to make a choice that the parent wouldn’t choose, and, at the same time, holding the teen back from the edge of the cliff.

Timeframes for re-evaluation are critical to include in the family mediation agreement.  The best-laid plans tend to be derailed by unexpected events. In addition, habits of relating are not easily changed. Power plays erode best intentions. It is wise for family members to set a time for weekly check-ins or even daily check-ins until new patterns are firmly established. It is also a good idea to make a follow-up appointment with the mediator for two weeks or a month away. Having dates in place for future conversations gives a negotiated settlement the best chance for success.


Judy West has served her Denver CO community as a full time professional Mediator | Arbitrator since 2003. Judy resolves common types of disputes that affect us closest to home: Divorce & Family, Real Estate, and Small Business Disputes. Judy is a founding member of Colorado Mediators & Arbitrators.

This article was originally published by Restorative Justice in 2004.



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