As we’ve already covered LISTENING in our ‘A-Z of Mediation’ series, it is now time to look at another crucial skill that goes hand-in-hand and is equally as important – QUESTIONING.
And, just like listening, a good mediator will use questions to draw out information, improve their understanding of the situation and, above all else, give the opportunity for all participants to tell their side of the story.
First of all, let’s look at the main benefits of effective questioning:
Asking questions helps to establish familiarity and rapport between the parties and the mediator, easing the participants in to an unusual and often nerve-wracking experience. The mediator will also start to show their neutrality and impartiality, which will help to build trust and may invite them to share further details.
Can clarify and confirm information
One of the main goals for mediation, as mentioned already, is for all participants to be able to get everything off their chests, including thoughts, opinions and feelings. For the mediator to get a full and clear picture of all of this, it might be necessary for them to ask some questions. Details in the story might be slightly ambiguous or omitted, or they may feel like the party could share further information.
Identifies positions and interests
In the individual meetings, the mediator needs to find out where the disputants are currently, as well as their objectives going forward. At the start of the mediation, all the participants are likely to be expressing is what they want (positions) and it may require some probing questions to find out WHY they want or need what they do (interests). This can help to identify sticking points and key issues that may be applicable in the joint meeting.
Provides opportunities for collaboration
By inviting them to see the bigger picture and provide suggestions, it may be that they start to see a different perspective of the dispute. In the safe and controlled environment of the mediation, this may start to open the door for them to collaborate on an agreement.
However, whilst it is important to ask questions during the mediation, it is important to not overdo it – the last thing you want is for the parties to feel like they are being interrogated! On top of this, the mediator also needs to consider the types of questions they’re asking, as well as when and why they’re asking them too.
As such, here are some basic tips for effective questioning:
Ask one question at a time
Whilst it might be tempting to rattle off several questions at a time, especially when you think they could all be of benefit, you don’t want to bombard the disputant and make them feel uncomfortable.
Listen to the answer
A good question may require some thinking time or deliberation to answer. Don’t hurry them and listen to the full response so that you don’t miss anything. You may also hear something that you want clarifying or expanding on too.
Don’t ask questions for the sake of it
Silence in the mediation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Participants may be thinking or reflecting on what is happening, which could lead to more information down the line.
Avoid leading and multiple-choice questions
Don’t lead the mediation down a certain path by trying to get the answers that you think they want. Multiple-choice questions also limit the answers that they can provide, which goes against the idea of mediation having an infinite number of possible outcomes.
Don’t lead with your heaviest-hitting question – they may not trust you fully or be ready to answer it at that stage. Asking random questions one after the other may also make it appear that you’re not listening and not following what is going on.
In much the same way as listening, asking questions is something that everybody does, but not something that everybody does well. As such, it is important for mediators to be conscious of what questions they are asking, making sure that the parties remain engaged in the process, as well as giving them a proper opportunity to share their side of the story.
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