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Who hasn’t flinched when a friend asks “are you doing anything Saturday?” We can’t help but wonder “do they want me to help them move? - or are they going to give me free tickets to the big game?” Question often contain underlying agendas, based on the context and the way in which they are asked. In conversation, these can usually be sorted out, but in conflict this ambiguity fans the flames of defensiveness. Why? Because over 90% of meaning in face to face communication comes not from words, but from tone of voice, facial expression and other body language. So while words may form of a question, the non-verbal communication more truly reflects the motive for the question.
A question invites the responder to disclose something about themselves, their situation or their perspective. On hearing a question, we often wonder “why are you asking?” Or we may react to a perceived judgement or assumption contained in the question. Consider the following questions and what the listener might hear:
Listener hears: I'd like to grab a coffee and want some company.
Listener hears: I think you're out of your mind!
Listener hears: The windows had better be washed today!
Listener hears: We’re done with this meeting, but I need to go through motions of inviting feedback
Each of these questions are closed ended – requiring only a “yes” or “no” from the responder. These questions usually contain a judgement or assumption, which in turn foster defensiveness in the responder.
Three tips for asking questions (especially in conflict):
You don’t have to wait until you are in a conflict to practice open ended questions. Try them in conversation – you’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn about people. Here are some examples:
I remember a conversation with my wife in which she bemoaned the sexist attitudes in society. As a male, I initially assumed she was referring to me and some shortcoming in our relationship and I found myself beginning to react defensively. Fortunately, I caught myself, replaced my judgement with curiosity, and asked her “in what ways does that impact you?” It turned out that her comment was not a masked criticism of anything I had done, but reflected her frustration as a teacher dealing with students from cultures in which women were not respected. This lead to a fascinating conversation on a previously undiscussed topic.
In conflict, effective questions can uncover the other person’s perspectives and motivators. Here are a few examples of powerful questions:
So replace your judgement with curiosity when you ask questions. In conversation, you will learn more about people and deepen your connection with them. In conflict, you will uncover new perspectives and previously unseen possibilities for resolution.
Gary Harper, through Harper and Associates, has been working with the “people side of organizations” by providing conflict resolution and communication training, facilitation and mediation services. Gary is a trainer, writer, speaker and facilitator who recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution. His workshops and presentations offer accessible, practical concepts and strategies to understand and resolve conflict.
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