By: Aaron Peterson, MS-NCR ‘12
Within the realm of conflict engagement, parties interact with one another in a hope that resolution might be possible. When this process becomes difficult, parties will sometimes seek out a mediator. With a mediator present, parties will attempt to yield to the process of facilitated engagement as it unfolds. Throughout this process, it becomes necessary for the mediator to ask certain questions. These questions are often directed to one or both of the participants, but they can also focus on the mediator as well. This article will take a closer look at some of these questions.
What is it you want?
This is the fundamental question facilitators will eventually ask during the mediation process. It is extremely important that this is expressed clearly by both parties. When parties express what it is they want, they are really talking about interests. Interests are part of the central region described in Bernie Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict that typically propels most conflicts (Mayer, 2000). Asking participants what their true interests are forces them to do the necessary work of determining what is truly important. This question can often determine how the rest of the mediation session(s) might proceed. If this question is either not asked or effectively answered by all parties involved, interests will not be realized and actual resolution will not be possible.
What common interests do you and the other party share?
This question may have a similar connotation to the first question, but it is inherently different. The first question must be determined first but using this one as a secondary question forces participants to view the conflict from the other’s perspective. This can be somewhat uncomfortable or even unfathomable for certain parties. Yet, the way this type of question is posed does not lend itself to implied or prescribed answers (Moore, 2003). Maintaining an open-ended approach is crucial to move the facilitative process forward.
Would you like a caucus?
Caucuses are another tool facilitators can utilize during a mediation session. They can happen at almost anytime during the mediation, but they essentially serve the purpose of giving a reprieve. The use of a caucus is typically discussed during the introductory stage of the mediation. The mediator explains to each party that he/she can use a caucus at any time in order to keep the mediation productive. It might be used to allow a participant a chance to release their emotions in confidence with the mediator, or it could be used to prevent a party from prematurely committing to a resolution or making unconstructive concessions (Moore, 2003). There is some inherent difficulty in asking parties if they would like to use a caucus. First, it may unintentionally suggest that one of he party needs it because his/her emotions have escalated. This could potentially raise defenses about the mediation process. Secondly, caucuses allow the mediator to speak with just one party at a time. Whichever party that is not meeting with the mediator during the caucus may begin to generate feelings of mistrust or the possibility that the mediator is siding with the other party. In any event, caucuses are a valuable recourse to use in mediation as long as it is done tactfully and transparently.
What is my role?
This question can be one raised by the mediator to each party, but in most cases, it is probably one that the mediator asks him/herself. This question focuses on the very heart of the conflict paradigm. There may be some inherent doubt about what conflict practitioners have to offer. It is even suggested that people embroiled in conflict don’t often consider the fact they might need a professional or a facilitative system to guide them through the process (Mayer, 2004). By asking this question, conflict professionals can expand the concept of what can be offered in a mediation session. Every conflict situation is different, and as such, each participant needs something slightly different from the facilitator. Considering this question ensures that the conflict specialist is keeping an open mind in the process and simultaneously not being limited in his/her abilities.
Considering the Questions
As the person in charge of facilitating mediation, it is important to remember the impact the mediator possesses. The path to potential resolution is often determined by how effective the mediator guides each party to communicate. One major way the mediator guides is by asking important questions. By asking these questions, the facilitator not only includes each party in the conflict engagement process, but he/she continues to challenge the field towards potent mediation.
Creighton University’s online Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution can prepare solution-focused individuals for a host of careers in mediation and beyond. For more information, complete the form or call 866.717.6365 to speak with a program manager.
Mayer, B. S. (2004). Beyond neutrality: Confronting the crisis in conflict resolution. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mayer, B. S. (2000). The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner’s guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Moore, C. W. (2003). The mediation process: Practical strategies for resolving conflict. (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.