The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions. – Claude Levi-Strauss
What makes us human, I think, is an ability to ask questions, a consequence of our sophisticated spoken language. – Jane Goodall
It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. – James Thurber
…asking powerful questions is a core competency that is meant to facilitate clients’ self-discovery… – Cinnie Noble
Every basic mediation training program, and many higher-level mediation seminars and training courses, include a section on the importance of, purposes for and uses of questions. Presenters provide lists of questions, with exercises that demonstrate their application to various aspects or stages of mediation. I will follow this method, to some degree. However, I do not set out to produce a primer on the use of questions. While I will offer my own list of favorite questions, my intention is to consider two key benefits from the use of questions. First, asking questions helps mediators remain attentive to process management and avoid becoming enmeshed in framing the solution. Second, by using a certain type of question (I use the term “elicitive”), mediators nurture self-examination, reflection and curiosity. Such questions can foster a more vigorous, comprehensive and satisfying conversation.
In offering some thoughts about questions, I am reminded of a comment attributed to John Haynes, that the ideal mediation would be one in which the mediator only asked questions. I never took that as a statement of absolute principle, nor that John was belittling any other form of intervention. In fact, the statement may be more a reflection of John’s influence on family mediation than an articulation of a standard of practice. Personally, I believed the comment was aspirational. By asking questions, we invite parties to communicate—to disclose, discuss, disagree, discover and ultimately determine an outcome for themselves. Questions nurture self-reflection. Questions assist parties to explore the nature, history, and impact of their dispute. Questions can prompt ideas, information, and proposals, and to clarify objections to potential solutions. Asked in a timely and thoughtful manner, questions can bring out goals, interests, expectations, doubts, and beliefs.
Before offering my own collection of favorite questions, I want to speak about the underlying beliefs that animate my own approach to practice. I begin with self-determination. This principle, rooted in our mediator psyche, embedded in our professional jargon, and codified in every version of mediator standards of practice, is an elemental tenet of mediation. Self-determination is based on the commonsense notion that the parties are best suited to make sense of the conflict and to choose solutions (or none) that are most likely to resolve their dispute. It’s often said, “the conflict belongs to the parties.” Who could dispute this basic idea? It’s also commonly said, “mediators manage the process, the parties determine the outcome.” We help. We are not problem-solvers; we are not so smart and gifted that we can magically settle their differences. Our role is to manage a process that supports, encourages and assists parties to uncover solutions that have thus far eluded them. We do this through variety of strategies and techniques that foster their conversation, invite self-reflection, encourage creativity, and support constructive engagement.
A most fitting and effective tool with which to nurture self-determination is a well-timed, carefully formed and strategically constructed question. Questions keep the focus on the parties. Questions help the mediator remain focused on the process, allowing the parties to fully explore the terrain and potential resolution of their dispute. Questions encourage the parties to present their ideas, proposals, and arguments that support their individual perspectives; to offer their perspectives on the events and significance of the dispute; to present information essential to the consideration of possible outcomes, and to offer and evaluate possible solutions. And, as the nursery rhyme reminds us, questions let us hear and learn more.
. A wise old owl lived in an oak,
. The more he saw the less he spoke,
. The less he spoke the more he heard.
. Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
. From Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd ed., 1997, p. 403)
Let’s explore the following situation and consider the use of both probing and elicitive questions.
Susan and Gerry have been separated for two years. Until recently, they have worked well on co-parenting their daughter, Rachel.
Rachel, age 15, lives with Susan during school terms and with Gerry one weekend a month. She is also with Gerry half of school holidays and for six weeks during the summer.
At Susan’s house, Rachel completes school assignments, helps with chores, and respects her curfew. At Gerry’s house, Rachel has few chores, is allowed to stay out later than at Susan’s, and spends time with her friends away from home. Their co-parenting is being threatened by constant disagreements about parenting styles and values. Susan believes that ground rules and limits will keep Rachel from getting into serious trouble or having her school work suffer. Gerry believes that Rachel is responsible enough to make good choices and sees no evidence that his approach has put Rachel at risk. Rachel is an excellent student, is on the soccer team, and seems to be a capable and responsible young woman.
Faced with such a situation, many mediators are likely to ask a variety probing questions. Such questions help the parties to: Identify and clarify the issues, ensure that essential information is available; present and discuss proposals; evaluate options for resolving the dispute; generate a workable solution. As well, probing questions engage the parties in the process, build relationships between the mediator and the parties, and reveal information essential for creating, discussing and evaluating options. The following are examples of probing questions:
- Build relationships through the exchange of ideas and information.
Would you describe the current arrangements for co-parenting?
How did you decide on the current parenting plan?
- Share information, clarify and confirm what is known, and determine whether additional information is needed.
Can you describe what parts of the current plan are working?
How is Rachel doing at school—academically, with friends, and in activities?
- Create opportunities for participants to exchange information, concerns, interests, explanations, proposals and perspectives.
Have you talked about your different ideas for parenting Rachel?
What happened when you had those discussions?
- Uncover the interests and values that explain the parties’ perspectives and proposals.
Could you describe your relationship with Rachel?
As a parent, what are your goals for Rachel?
- Explore new approaches for dealing with the conflict.
Have you considered alternatives to the current arrangement?
Have you discussed these ideas with the other parent?
- Assess the strengths and weaknesses of proposals and alternatives—their own and those of the other party.
What part of this proposal might work for you?
What aspect(s) could be difficult for you to accept?
Despite their obvious benefits, there are two possible shortcomings with the use of these questions. First, probing questions are likely to keep the mediator at the center of the discussion. Topics that the parties might want to discuss can be overlooked. These questions have a tendency to shape the scope, tone, and content of the parties’ interactions based on the mediator’s understanding of the conflict and the mediator’s ideas about the goals for mediation. Probing questions can, despite the mediator’s commitment to party self-determination, mold and direct the parties’ interactions. Second, probing questions have the potential to create an unnecessarily rigid focus on solutions. While constructive problem-solving is central to the mediation process, and while concrete outcomes are a principal objective of mediation, there is a danger that single-minded pursuit of an agreement may cause the mediator to overlook (or even undervalue) additional elements that can enrich and deepen their conversation—and that could produce an even more successful outcome.
Elicitive questions are those that invite exploration and self-examination and encourage curiosity. They help the parties think about their skills in dealing with the conflict, their goals for participating in mediation, their roles in the conflict and in finding solutions, and the history, nature, and impact of the conflict. Asking such questions fosters reflection on matters such as: What is my role in this conflict? Why is it important to me? How would a resolution affect me? Is there anything I want—in addition to a workable solution—from participating in mediation? What knowledge and skills can I bring to bear on addressing the conflict, and, how can I best do that? What do I need from the mediator and from the other party?
Questions that invite self-reflection can be more difficult to frame. That may be one reason why mediators ask fewer of them than those that support problem-solving. As well, mediators may shy away from asking questions associated with the kind of self-examination that occurs in counseling or psychotherapy. Nevertheless, if the objective of our interventions is to encourage dynamic and thorough conversation that provides opportunities for resolution, then if follows that we should use of techniques that nurture the kind of discussion where parties have full freedom to explore their experience of the conflict. In this way, elicitive questions also assist in joint problem-solving.
The following are some categories and examples of elicitive questions:
- Introductory questions to help orient the parties and set the stage for the mediation:
What would help you achieve your goals?
Thinking about participating in this process, what are your expectations?
What questions might you have about what will happen today, or about my role?
What would you like to know about mediation?
What will help you participate actively and effectively?
What, if anything, might make it difficult for you to participate fully and confidently?
- Questions to help bring out new ideas and gain clarity about issues and possible solutions:
As you listened to the other party’s comments, what did you hear that was new or different?
What, if anything, would you like to ask the other party?
What might help the other party understand you and your concerns?
What might help you express yourself as you would wish?
What do you need to help you make a decision, if anything?
What are some ways you could gain what you are seeking?
How would you describe the conflict between you as parents to someone who doesn’t know either of you or your daughter?
- Questions to deepen the parties’ awareness about their own needs and concerns, or those of the other party:
If there was a time when you had a different view of each other as parents, what would that be?
What do you think the other party needs to hear from you (or, you from the other party)?
Are you having the chance to say what’s important to you in order for you to present ideas and respond to comments and proposals from the other party?
If you think you are being listened to and understood, what is the other party doing to help make that happen?
If you think you are not being listened to and understood, what might the other person do differently?
What helped you to see the situation differently?
- Exploratory questions
How does this information help you better understand the situation, and how you want to deal with it? What more do you need?
What might change the way you see things?
How might you get that to happen?
What difference would that make for you?
Regarding your daughter, what do you think she needs most from you?
As a parent, what do you want for your daughter?
What legacy do you want to leave your daughter about you and your efforts as her parents?
I am not offering these questions to provide a template for your approach to mediation. My intention is to illustrate (a) the value of questions generally, and (b) the types of questions that both support party self-determination and assist parties to explore a range of possible solution to their conflict. I want to emphasize that how we think about our role as mediators and the goals of mediation will shape the approach we take and the interventions we employ. If we view mediation as an exercise in facilitated problem-solving, then we will predominately use probing questions. If we see mediation as an opportunity for parties to exercise self-determination through a conversation nurtured by self-reflection and curiosity, then we are more likely to use elicitive questions as a primary (though not exclusive) form of intervention.
I also encourage readers to find their own language for questions—whether probing or elicitive. I have offered examples from my own practice to stimulate your thinking about the value and use of questions. None of us will approach a conflict situation in the same way. None of us will frame questions in the same way or use them for the same purposes. None of us is ever likely to conduct a mediation through questions alone. All of us can, however, learn to use questions with greater purpose, increased frequency, and greater effectiveness.
Here’s an experiment: during your next mediation session, make note of the type of questions you ask. I’m willing to guess that the scale will tip toward probing questions that are directed toward problem-solving, and that you will rely on few, if any, elicitive questions. If so, that wouldn’t be surprising. Ask yourself whether you are satisfied with your use of questions. In what ways did your questions nurture a thorough and vigorous discussion of the conflict and its impact on the parties? Did any of your questions invite self-reflection and encourage curiosity? How did the parties respond to your questions? What did this experiment reveal to you? Will you alter your approach? Did you feel affirmed in your use of questions?
Michael Lang is a family mediator. He served on the board, and as president of the Academy of Family Mediators, was editor-in-chief of Mediation Quarterly, was the founding director of the graduate program in conflict resolution at Antioch University, and is the author of The Making of a Mediator. He currently is at work on a new manuscript dealing with mediation and reflective practice.
Bibliography on “Questions”
Cloke, K. 25 Prenuptual Questions
Elder, J., Paul, R. (2005). The Miniature Guide to the Art of Asking Essential Questions. Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Khalsa, M. and Illig, R. (2008). Letʹs Get Real or Letʹs Not Play: Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship. Portfolio.
Macduff, I. The Power of the Unexpected Question.
Noble, C. (2015). Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You, CINERGY Coaching.
Pollack, P. Asking the Tough but Necessary Questions.
Vogt, E., Juanita Brown, J., Isaacs, D. (2003). The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action, Whole Systems Associates.