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A Conflict Analysis of Why

by Deborah Sword
February 2007 Deborah  Sword
Well-timed, well-placed, well-worded questions distinguish experienced mediators, especially in caucus. Questions do much more than merely clarify the parties’ stories. With questions, we test the parties’ realities, open new possibilities and challenge the borders of their thoughts. How to do this effectively is not a small issue. Considering the importance of the questions we ask in mediations, we ought to pay considerable attention to how we word them.

‘Why’ is almost always the wrong question

The easiest beginning to a question is ‘why’. You likely noticed that is the ‘easiest’ way, not the ‘best’ way. We routinely frame ordinary questions in our day with ‘why’ and it is codified in the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. It properly takes its place as the last W. It is designed to provoke an answer that rationalizes and explains behavior after the parties (who), the issues (what), the location (where) and history (when) have been established. The ‘why’ is the vessel that pours out the stories after the first four Ws have put them in their relational, geographic and temporal contexts.

The issues arising from questions that begin with ‘why’ are numerous. During your daily routine asking 'why did...' is unlikely to be problematic. In a conflict, it can be quite a different matter. There are many reasons that ‘why’ is loaded, just as there are many reasons for needing the answers that the ‘why’ question is asked to get:

1. 'Why' is a raft of assumptions floating in the guise of a question. 'Why did you…?' assumes the party did something deserving of approbation. 'Why would you…?' embeds an assumption that the quality of the party’s judgment is in doubt. 'Why should…?' suggests that the option is not worthy of consideration. 'Why' assumes that someone did something, had a reason for doing it and the asker is expecting the answer to convey the justification for the action.

2. 'Why' implies blame. If you had not done it, the question would have been worded as ‘did you’ rather than ‘why did you’. The usual response to being accused of doing something is self-defensive. The party must now rationalize the reason for having done whatever act is being impugned. If the party did not do it, there must be a credible denial or the party looks guilty. Neither option tends to contribute positively to understanding the stories of the conflict.

3. Just as ‘why’ is the easy question, there are two predictable formulaic answers, neither of which truly satisfies the intention of the questioner. The first answer begins, 'Because…' and the second is, 'I don’t know…' The ‘because’ answer is likely to be a position. The ‘I don’t know’ is a dead end.

4. Once self-defense kicks in as a response to feeling blamed, confronted or attacked, the pattern of communication tends to revert to what got the parties stuck in the conflict to the point they were unable to resolve it before the mediation. Undoubtedly they had been asking each other ‘why’ for some time before calling for help. If asking ‘why’ did not work prior to you entering as the mediator it is only slightly more likely to enlighten now that you are on the scene.

5. ‘Why’ often misses the point of the question in exchange for a denial. For example, 'Why is that important to you?' begs for a definition of important, not whether it is a main interest driving the conflict. Asked as a ‘why’ question, the party being questioned can, for example, deny the assumption that is embedded in the question, such as that something is important. Once that denial is tabled, it is challenging to elicit the information that had been sought in the ‘why’ question.

6. Without intending it, the ‘why’ question can sound hostile and confrontational. Consider the tone of voice often associated with, for example, 'Why do you want to know?' or 'Why do you care?' The attitude is akin to 'What’s it to ya?' or, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’

Getting past ‘why’

The questions that elicit ‘why’ type issues are crucial to mediation; there must be a way to ask them that avoids the ‘because’ and ‘I don’t know’ response traps. By framing the question using words other than ‘why’ you are asking what you really want to know in a more open-ended and non-judgmental way. The other four Ws are helpful substitutes for their weak fifth partner. A substitution as simple as, 'how is it that …' instead of 'why' allows a broader range of non-defensive responses that get to interests rather than positions.

In one multi-day training session we practiced asking questions that did not use the word ‘why’. The following day, a professional who was also a mother could not contain her delight with her new questioning skill. Rather than ask her son why he was grumpy, she asked the question, “What do you want to tell about your day that will help us understand what you are experiencing?” She worked hard to find words that did not assume he was feeling moody and surly although she observed that he was. She tried to remove the assumptions, judgments, blaming, accusations and positions from the question. If he had answered with the classic teen-age, 'Nothing.' I’m not sure what her follow up question would have been, because she did not have to ask it. He might have given her a real answer simply because he was surprised at the different way she put her question.

Novelty can provoke that rich source of information. A new pattern can create the conditions for change. Words in questions are part of the patterns of predictability or novelty. In complex adaptive systems, which conflicts are, changing one thing can change everything. Once a new input in the form of the mediator’s novel and thoughtful questioning enters the conflict system, new possibilities open.

Questions are such an important part of the conflict resolution toolkit that effective questioning techniques should be part of all mediation training and always in mind as we mediate. When offering mediation training, there are a number of words that I suggest people expunge from their mediation vocabulary. A question beginning with ‘why’ is one of them.


L. Deborah Sword has been a conflict manager, trainer, writer and speaker since 1991. Her other musings about conflict analysis, management and resolution appear on her website:

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