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?