Further Techniques: Not-so-great Questions

Technique: Not-So-Great Questions

This post is less about what to do and more about what not to do. That's because when you're learning to mediate effectively, there may be a few habits to break!

Gotcha” Questions - One problem is that the questions we tend to ask children when something has gone wrong are “gotcha” questions that sound like they come straight out of the justice system. These questions assume a “vic” and a “perp” (or a plaintiff and defendant) instead of just two people with a problem to solve. “Gotcha” questions, like “what did you do to him?” are legalistic and accusatory. They make the plaintiff feel aggrieved and self-righteous. They make the defendant feel – well, defensive and self-righteous. This line of questioning is polarizing, so it arouses feelings that are barriers to mediation. An open-ended, neutral question like “What happened?” avoids the perp/vic framework – so it helps to neutralize conflict. A dispute is, simply, what happens when two people disagree and/or behave disrespectfully towards one another.

Convergent Questions - Convergent questions are straight out of the justice system. A lawyer is trained never to ask a witness a question that the lawyer herself doesn't know the answer to. That's because the lawyer must direct all her questions towards an intended conclusion. Lawyers are supposed to ask convergent questions, because it's their job to home in on the predetermined target, which of course is the “truth” that they are promoting. Mediators, on the other hand, have no target, so we ask divergent questions – wide enough to accommodate that proverbial truck! 

Tip: Here are some examples of convergent questions, the kind that aren't helpful in mediation:

  • Questions with a “yes” or “no” answer (these tend to stop the conversation dead)
  • Multiple choice questions (because an answer that isn't prompted will usually be more rich, detailed and accurate)

How would you “widen” these questions so that they diverge instead of converging?

  • Did you want to play with the doll?
  • Were you sad or were you insulted?

Further Techniques: Great Questions

Technique: Asking Good Questions

Questions are the heart of mediation. I like to think that when we ask our children good questions, we are educating them in the highest and purest sense; after all, the Latin word educare means “drawing or leading out.” Try to ask questions that are probing and curious. The key is to be inquisitive without being inquisitional. When people catch the scent of accusation or distrust, they shut down. (Obviously, a self-protective stance is not conducive to open communication. You are questioning for understanding, not to “catch” someone or corner him. ) Staying neutral is your touchstone when you mediate. The tone of your questions will protect – or undermine – the process.

The goal is to get your children sharing information. You'll find that questions with a “yes or no” answer don't yield much material. Try to frame questions that are wide enough to drive a truck through! It’s okay if you don't know what the answer will be – in fact, it's even better if you can't imagine where things are going. That means the kids can determine the direction of the mediation themselves. You are only there to maintain the flow and keep the tone respectful. You do this in part by keeping the questions coming – questions that are curious, imaginative, empathetic and non-judgmental. A good mediator models openness of heart and mind.

Always wonder about the feeling under the feeling, or the feeling before the feeling. Siblings are used to having their brothers and sisters “mad” at them. “Mad” might be so commonplace that it's a little boring. For example, it's enlightening for Henry to learn that before his sister Luisa got mad at him she was frightened (or disgusted or saddened, for example) by what he did. The final emotion that she has presented to him (“mad”) can be traced back to something else that is actually quite different, and this knowledge might be useful to Henry in reflecting upon his behavior.

Keep the good questions coming!

Tip: Here are some questions that are “wide enough to drive that truck through”

What's going on?

What do you think happened?

How did you feel about that?/How did that affect your feelings?

How did you feel when [s]he said that?

Do you remember how you felt when it first happened?

What would it take for you to feel differently about this?

What happened right before that?

How were you feeling right before that?

Is there something you'd like to bring up that you're maybe a little worried about discussing?

Could you talk a little more about that?

What did you want/expect him/her to do?

What will it look like if this happens again?

What would it feel like to do it in this new way instead?

Does this remind you of something else?

What did you mean when you said ______________?

What's really, really important to you about this?

What will if feel like for you if we don't solve this?

What would it take for you to feel like we've solved this?

Can you say that another way so [s]he might understand you better?

How did you...?

Why did you...? 

The Opposite of COMBAT: "C" is for Contracting

Technique: “C” is for Contracting. This is the fun part, the culmination of all your hard work! Each child should commit to the terms of the agreement. Usually, a sincere verbal contract should do it, but signing a clear and precise written contract adds solemnity to the occasion. Or each child could write out a short letter to the other detailing what they are promising to do (or not do) and give it to the sibling. Putting it in their own writing provides the kids with another kind of mental walk-through. (This could help an impulsive child to curb his or her behavior.) In closing, congratulate the kids and thank them for their time and effort, their honesty – whatever seems appropriate to you.  And by the way, congrats to you too -- you're a mediator!

Tip: For kids too young to read, or when one of them isn't reading yet, they can make a picture illustrating what they agreed to. If you have one reader and one non-reader, the younger one could supply the illustrations and the older one could write down the terms. Collaboration, wahoo!

Q: Dear Susie – Would it be OK if I wrote you a description of a whole mediation? It went sideways in a couple of different aspects, and didn't end very satisfactorily. I'm not sure what I could have done differently...

A: Dear Parent – I would love that! It takes guts to share our not-so-shining moments. I think we can all learn a lot reading what you have to say. And perhaps I can offer a tip or two about how to avoid getting derailed. (But...be sure to notice in the coming days whether things have gotten better since the mediation. Sometimes just unpacking the issues and feelings is enough, despite a mediation that isn't picture-perfect.)

Please write to me any time at northmediates@gmail.com

If you'd prefer that I not publish your question and my answer, just say so!

The Opposite of COMBAT: "O" is for Organizing

Technique: “O” is for Organizing. You may have been doing some organizing already, writing some ideass down or drawing simple little pictures to illustrate options. Here's where you try to pull everything together in order to prepare some kind of contract. It's the time to ask lots of clarifying questions and hash out the terms and the wording that everyone can live with. It's also the time to get specific. Think journalism: who, what, where, when and how. This is not the time for glib or vague promises. Nailing down the details helps goof-proof the agreement. Is it realistic? Is it durable? If a big brother agrees to “be nicer,” what will that look like? The little sister might be envisioning an invitation to eat lunch with her brother's group at school, whereas he's thinking more in terms of simply agreeing not to make faces at her during dinner. In other words, try to align promises with expectations.

Help the parties “walk through” what they will have to do to change their behavior according to the contract. (“What will it take for you to do this differently?”) Neuroscientists tell us that a mental rehearsal can prepare us to follow through later, by harnessing mindfulness and self-control.

Tip: It's a very good idea to build in a plan for any lapses that might occur, because no one's perfect. (“And what will happen if Marissa forgets to make her bed?”)

Q: Dear Susie – I tried these techniques with my kids, and one of them got restless and agreed to something I was pretty sure he'd regret. Should I have intervened? If so, how? Isn't this their thing to figure out?

A: Dear Parent – Yes, it is!  Sometimes towards the end of a mediation, especially when the tense part is over and a resolution is at hand, people can become like ponies trotting back to the barn. Elated and tired, they just want it to be over! So in the Organizing phase of mediation you may feel a little like a party-pooper, and that's unavoidable. If you sniff injustice, you could build into the contract that everyone meet again in a week to review how things are going. There is nothing quite like giving in or giving up and then having to live with the consequences for a bit. It will make that child a more careful, patient negotiator going forward!


The Opposite of COMBAT: "M" is for Mulling-over

Technique: Now that the kids have finished Brainstorming without criticism or evaluating, it's time for Mulling-over. This is the time to compare all the solutions they've come up with and to begin negotiating about them. If kids have objections, they should be encouraged to state respectfully what they don't like about someone else's suggestion, or to say how they would tweak it to make it more acceptable. (You may have to refer back to the ground rules to keep things civil.)

Something cool to watch for: you may notice that some hybridizing happens during negotiations, especially in cases where there are a lot of options on the table.  Kids are very nimble thinkers. They may take the front end of one idea and hook it on to the back end of another. Once that happens, they may really have something!  The rewards of respectful negotiation should be pretty apparent at this point.

Tip: Here you can sometimes help if you notice that Party #1 wants such-and-such but still hasn't put anything on the table as a concession. You can gently probe to see if Party #2 needs or wants something in return. Often an idea that sounded terrible five minutes ago starts to sound pretty good if it's accompanied by something of value in exchange. And “something of value” may not be anything material. It could be a compliment...an apology...an offer of help with something.

Q: Dear Susie – I was kind of surprised to see that my older child had trouble during Brainstorming. I thought she would be the one with all the ideas. Instead, my younger one, who is usually less verbal, was on fire with solutions and suggestions. This seemed to make the older one grumpy and a little shut-down.

A: Dear Parent – I say give it time. Mediation is a great setup for getting to know your children better (as well as a way for them to get to know each other better.) If I had to guess, I'd bet that your older child has a harder time with change and new situations. This whole “mediation thing” caught her off guard. It sounds like your younger child greets new situations with enthusiasm, jumping in with both feet! It may take your older one a little time and practice to get comfortable mediating. Be sure to thank them for hanging in there, and for their hard work -- even if the results aren't yet dazzling.

The Opposite of COMBAT: B is for "Brainstorming"

Technique: By now, both kids have vented as well as demonstrated that they heard their sibling. They are ready for step 3.

“B” is for Brainstorming. Invite the kids to come up with solutions. No idea is too crazy or far-fetched. Don't be surprised if “kid solutions” sound a lot different from what you feel is reasonable or fair! If the ideas are flying fast and furious, you may want to write them down. Or, if the kids are really little, make simple stick drawings to illustrate each idea.

Once you have more than two suggestions on the table, things can get very interesting. I think of it as The Magic of Idea #3. The first two suggestions are usually along the lines of “I get to have the truck”/”No, I get to have the truck.” Once this falls flat, the kids realize they have to get more inventive. Here is where your patience may be rewarded! A third idea means that someone has detached from his position enough to imagine a fresh option.  The very act of doing this may help the other party to loosen her grip on her position. Here you may detect a significant shift – when “you and me against each other” becomes “you and me against the problem."

Brainstorming is a good time to try for balance. It may not be enough for Lisa to say she will stop calling Quentin a “baby” when he annoys her. Is there something Quentin can put on the table in exchange? A specific annoying behavior that he can agree to stop? Or a desired behavior that he can try out? That's the essence of win/win.

Tip: Brainstorming is creative and collaborative. Try to keep the kids from critiquing or comparing the various ideas as they are offered. (If necessary, remind them that they will have the opportunity later to weigh all the ideas and offer opinions.) Ridicule and criticism shut down creativity like nothing else, and Brainstorming should be an unfettered, freewheeling part of the mediation process. You may have to stifle your own critical thoughts too!

Q: Dear Susie – We've been practicing Talking and Acknowledging and the kids are starting to get it. However, my older boy is very low key about expressing his emotions. He will say “I'm mad” in a quiet voice but I can see he's seething. Meanwhile, my younger boy is very extravagant about expressing emotions. Can I (or should I) try to balance things out in some way?

A: Dear Parent – Yes, mediators use Power Balancing all the time! I think you're talking about differences in temperament, and I firmly believe that these qualities of personality are “baked into” who we are. Mediation doesn't turn lions into lambs or vice versa, but it does help address liabilities of temperament. When you are using Active Listening to get at feelings, it's OK to say to your older boy, “Joshua, you said 'I'm mad' in a quiet voice but I'm looking at your face and your body and it looks to me like you're very, very angry. Is that right? If he agrees, then when it's time for his younger brother to Acknowledge, be sure he captures the full weight of Joshua's anger. This is how we write each boy's feelings in the same size font!

Keep the great questions coming...

The Opposite of COMBAT: A is for "Acknowledging"

Technique: So far, both kids have had time for Talking. Moving right along...

“A” is for Acknowledging. Have each child say what is on the other child's mind by re-stating it, even if this feels repetitive. Be sure the listener's re-state includes the emotional piece of the speaker's message. (Often the second speaker will try to use the Acknowledge phase to launch a rebuttal against what she just heard. Remind her that this is just the “talk and listen” part of the mediation, and that discussing comes later.)

Letting each child speak and be heard is critically important because it helps both children “feel felt,” in the words of Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell (Parenting from the Inside Out.) When we hear our opponent accurately reflect what is bothering us – and why – we calm down. Feeling soothed prepares us to get down to the business of problem-solving.

Tip: Active Listening is a wonderful communication tool! That's pretty much what Acknowledging is. “It hurt your feelings when I called your doll stupid” contains an emotion and a trigger. You may have noticed it's a lot like an I-Message turned around. Perhaps you were modeling Active Listening yourself, during the Talking part of the mediation. As you probed for feelings and offered emotion words, you helped the kids formulate their I-Messages. Not only does Active Listening (Acknowledgment) oil the wheels of any mediation; it reinforces a useful habit for responding to distressed people in general. In this way, every mediation serves as a rehearsal for reacting effectively in any emotionally charged situation – and being able to calm, rather than escalate, that situation. Once kids realize that Acknowledgment isn't caving in or giving in, they begin to appreciate what a powerful tool they have at their disposal!

Q: Dear Susie – My younger child Aaron is very excitable and impulsive. Because of that, I let him Talk first. But he still found it really hard to sit through Simon's Talk – and to really listen to what he had to say! What do I do about that?

A: Dear Parent – Sometimes it's best to use a TA-TA process (Aaron Talks, Simon Acknowledges, then Simon Talks, Aaron Acknowledges.) Usually, TT-AA works just fine (both parties Talk, then both parties Acknowledge.) This is a judgment call, and it can depend on how the mediation is flowing. Just be sure that both children get a chance to be heard and to demonstrate that they have heard.  That's the important thing!

The Opposite of COMBAT: Start with “T”

Technique: Now you're ready to actually start mediating! To make mediation systematic and easy to follow, I came up with a nemonic device: Mediation is the opposite of COMBAT.

TABMOC, right? We'll start with T and work our way to C.

"T" is for Talking. Invite each child to talk about the situation. Give everyone plenty of time to say what is on his or her mind. This is not the time for arguing or rebuttals. Remind them that everyone will have a chance to talk. Get them to talk about what happened and how they felt about it. In this way, you help them frame I-Messages: “I feel [emotion] when you [verb].” This is how you get from “You're mean!” or “You're a poopy head” to “I felt sad when you said that to me” and “I was very angry when you knocked over my blocks.”

Tip:Try not to focus on “who started it” or “who had it first.” Keep it neutral with questions like “What happened?” or “What's going on.?” You might want to begin with the child who seems most agitated. Ask lots of questions to assist them in putting together I-Messsages:

     What did she do that bothered you?  How did that make you feel?

Little kids might need help with the emotion words. It's perfectly OK for you to guess as long as you make it clear it's just your best guess, not an all-knowing label. More questions may lead you to shift gears. “Oh, now I see – it sounds like you were more jealous than frustrated!” All the while, you are building their emotional literacy as well as your understanding of your children.

The beauty of an I-Message is that it's inarguable. Try it yourself!

     I get so discouraged when I see your socks on the floor next to the hamper.

Think about how this opener is better than “You're such a slob!” or “You never put your socks in the hamper.” I-Messages give people something to think about, rather than something to resent and defend. And remember – I-Messages are highly contagious!

Q: Dear Susie – We are really having a lot of squabbling in our family right now...our younger daughter (age 4) struggles with sensory processing issues. This absolutely torments her older sister (age 6) who herself seems to fall into the category of "highly sensitive child." It feels like we're in quicksand and we can't get out of these cycles of arguing and seemingly unreasonable behavior.

A: Dear Parent – I hope that I-Messsages will help build understanding within each girl about her sister's struggle. When Hannah says, “I feel [emotion] when you [verb],” thank her for explaining. Turn to Rachel and wonder out loud, “I'm thinking abut how we can help with that...” No need to pursue further. You've dropped a little seed of empathy in the ground. Watch and see if it sprouts.

Please keep the questions coming...they really help uncork the energy!  Next week you'll learn step two of a mediation.  (What do you think "A" is for?)

Introducing the Kids to Mediation

Technique:  Always begin by inviting the kids to mediate. This is your introduction, and there are two key things you need to make clear. One is that you are not going to take sides. The other is that you have ground rules. It's your neutrality and the ground rules which protect the process. An intro might sound something like this (dial it up or down according to the ages of the kids):

“I want to hear what both of you have to say and I want to help you figure out what to do. I'm not going to decide anything, you are. Do you agree to try hard, listen to each other and talk respectfully?” (You may need to provide detail about what you mean by “respectfully” – no name calling, shouting, rude gestures, etc.)

It's usually not hard to get people to agree to ground rules. Setting standards makes people feel safe. Maybe this is because each party figures it's the other person, not himself, who is likely to “lose it!”

Over time, your introduction will become streamlined. However, I urge you never to slight or skip this step. Recapping your neutral role and the ground rules sets an intention for all of you. It will get things off on the right foot and help steady the process. Now you're ready to begin! Next week you will learn the first step step in a mediation.

Tip:  After getting a buy-in on your ground rules, you might ask your kids if they have any others that they would like to suggest as well. Then, before beginning, make sure everyone agrees to all the rules that have been put on the table. Not only does this help set the tone; the commitment stands as something you can refer back to if anyone's behavior goes out of bounds, which I guarantee will happen from time to time. Perhaps your family will invent and agree upon a set of ground rules that you can post on the fridge or family bulletin board.

Q&A:  Remember, this is your space.  Click here any time you have a question or comment!