As a volunteer mediator at CCR, you know that the goal of facilitative mediation is not to come to an agreement, but to have a productive conversation. There’s hope that the mediation process will produce an agreement, but that outcome is held lightly throughout the mediation. If productive conversation is the goal, then your questions must effectively elicit a meaningful exchange between the parties. But how do you ask effective questions?
Open-ended = open up
If you want someone to open up about their thoughts or feelings on a particular subject, ask a question that is open-ended. An open-ended question, as opposed to a closed-ended question, is a question that elicits a narrative response as opposed to a simple yes/no answer. “How did the two of you meet?” is an open-ended question. It invites the person to respond with a story.
An effective mediator actively listens to the answer
If you’re doing your job as a mediator, you’ll spend the majority of your time listening and only a small percentage of it talking. In order to effectively listen, you must actively listen. Active listening means:
● Remaining present while the person is speaking. Focusing on what the person is saying as opposed to focusing on what you will say next (or the conversation you had at breakfast, or your grocery list). This is harder than it sounds and takes practice.
● Maintaining eye contact with the person who is speaking. Eye contact goes a long way toward focusing your attention as well as communicating to the person that you are in fact listening.
● Summarizing to verify and clarify your understanding before moving on to the next question. Yes, there will be a quiz! We’re joking--but summarizing ensures that your next question is on point because it aligns with what has already been said.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
They say that curiosity killed the cat, but not so for the mediator. Follow your curiosity. This flows naturally from active listening. If you have been paying careful attention, you will typically have questions based on what you’ve heard. Pay attention to those questions and go ahead and ask. And remember, there are no dumb questions in mediation. In fact, the answers to the simplest questions can sometimes be the most revelatory.
You can lead a horse to water…
Avoid asking leading questions. A leading question is a question that implies the answer in the question itself. In truth, a leading question is not a question at all, but a statement disguised as a question. An example of a leading question might be, “You live on Lake St, correct?” as opposed to the question, “Where do you live?” Notice that leading questions are also often closed-ended questions that do not invite elaboration.
Remember, your primary job as a facilitative mediator is to hold space for a productive conversation between the parties to the conflict. Your primary tool for doing this is effective questions. Keep those questions open-ended, actively listen, follow your curiosity, and don’t lead with your questions. Doing so will help ensure that even if the parties do not arrive at a resolution, they will have had a valuable experience.
Do you have best practices for effective questioning? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.