That’s a good question!
Much of our learning comes from questions. Some questions provide us with bits of new information such as “What’s the capital of Ecuador?” or… “Who won the first football World Cup?” (Answers below). These snippets of information questions, often referred to as closed questions, provide simple single word or very short answers. They’re just like pieces of a jigsaw adding to our knowledge bank. The more expansive questions are where we start to dig a bit deeper. Often referred to as open questions they try to get people to explore their thinking or explain things in their answers. They might be helpful; “How can we make this better for people?” or they could leave people feeling threatened; “Why did you do that?” (Open questions aren’t always good questions!)
So what makes a question a good question?
There is no simple answer to that, nor I suspect, are there a set of guidelines that will ‘always’ lead to a good question. A firefighter attending the scene of a fire will want very specific information often found through short closed questions. A teacher trying to understand whether a student understands something may ask a series of questions, some open, some closed. What about a mediator?
What questions are good questions from a mediator?
Let’s consider their role.
- They are trying to help two (most often just two) parties resolve a conflict.
- They are trying to help the parties resolve it themselves.
- They are trying to do it quickly and with as little ‘input’ from the mediator as possible.
- They will do it whilst maintaining confidentiality for the parties.
A mediator will more than likely need to ask a lot of questions in order to fulfil their role successfully. Some questions will give the mediator basic factual information about the case, however they are only looking for ‘sufficient’ information to help the parties come to an agreement and resolve their conflict. They are not looking to know all the details, just enough to pose further questions which often open the doors to more fruitful discussion. A mediator is constantly juggling two types of question.
- What should I ask that will give me the key information that ‘I’ need to know?
- What questions could I ask that will help ‘the party’ to think differently; especially to open a door on possible solutions?
The first set gives rise to the second, but it is the to and fro between them that makes mediation work. Both types of questions are ‘good’ questions, but for me, the ones that open the door for the client are the most important, and the most rewarding. They remind me of my time as an educator when a student would pause before answering a question and one could almost see their mind connecting dots, putting things together, to grasp a new insight. Often referred to as ‘a lightbulb moment’.
The answer to ‘What is a good question?’ is perhaps elusive but for a mediator, that is precisely the question they constantly ask themselves.
Answers to the questions; The capital of Ecuador is ‘Montivideo’; and the winner of the first football World Cup is ‘Uruguay’ (https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-world-cup).
Further reading on the nature and importance of good questions;
The Harvard Business Review; https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-surprising-power-of-questions
Or for an interesting thread on a philosophy discussion board; https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/1569/what-makes-a-good-question