Using questions effectively
The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions. – Claude Lévi-Strauss
It’s tempting simply to tell people what to do — it seems easier and more efficient, and it makes us feel helpful and wise. The artful use of questions enables us to something much more powerful and, ultimately, more satisfying: Help people illuminate what’s important, invite discovery, and generate lasting solutions to their own problems. For these reasons, a good question is one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox.
Asking good questions
Be purposeful. It’s valuable to learn to ask questions because you’re intentionally trying to understand something (or help someone else do that), instead of asking questions for the sake of asking questions. This takes practice.
Remember, how you ask a question is as important as what you ask. Tone of voice and wording can have a powerful effect on the quality of the reaction and response you receive. When someone reacts badly to a question you’ve asked, look first to your tone and word choice.
Ask what you really want to know. When I am teaching workshops on asking good questions, I am repeatedly struck by how often people skirt all around the question they really want to ask. Skip all that and just ask what you really do want to know.
Be transparent. Don’t try to hide the intention behind your question, though do try to have intent that isn’t manipulative. If you are wondering something inside your head, consider asking it. I find myself wondering… is language I find very honest and useful in moments like this.
Ask one question at a time and be sure you listen to the answer. This seems obvious, but in my experience many people (even mediators) do not really listen to the answer.
Avoid having a list of questions that you simply work through. Not only does this tend to focus you more on asking than listening to the answers, but it can feel like an interrogation. By pushing yourself not to rely on the “crutch” of a list, you will not only become a better question asker, but a better listener.
Try not to fill silence. Silence is a good thing when you’ve asked a question. It usually means they’re thinking, which is what we want to encourage. If they’re simply confused by your question, they’ll tell you. Learn to be more comfortable with silences that last 10 or even 20 seconds.
Don’t supply possible answers to your question. It is surprising how common it is to hear people ask a question, then offer multiple choice answers. Just ask the question. By offering possible answers, you may inadvertently shut down deeper thinking or imply the best answers are from your own list.
Be succinct. Sometimes we add a lot of extra cushioning to a question when we worry it will be difficult or uncomfortable for the other person. When you keep talking, you risk watering down a powerful question or making it unclear what you’re trying to get at. Just get right to it (you can be kind and direct at the same time, you know).
Avoid leading questions. Be honest with yourself about this. A leading question isn’t really a question…it’s a statement you want to make, and you’ve just hung a question mark at the end to hide your real intention.
Remember that close-ended questions have use sometimes. We tend to value open-ended questions (questions that have multiple possible answers) over close-ended questions (questions that usually have one possible answer). That’s not a bad rule of thumb, but sometimes close-ended questions fill in a much-needed tidbit.
Timing matters. Even a brilliant question asked at the wrong time or in the wrong place will yield underwhelming results. Sometimes you need to re-ask a question later. Developing a nose for good timing is a matter of practice.
See if you can figure out the missing question you haven’t thought to ask. You don’t have to be omnipotent. Sometimes they have the better question or the missing one and that is a very good thing. What haven’t I asked that you want me to know about? can be very useful.
Effective questions are as much about attitude as they are about word choice. Even poorly phrased questions can be reprieved when asked from an attitude of curiosity and interest instead of an attitude of judgment or doubt.
Any good question can be used badly and lose its effectiveness. As with any tool, developing and using good questions requires vigilance about the intention with which you ask them.
Another way to think about this is to consider the difference between asking questions and questioning. When you have a questioning attitude, you're expressing disbelief, doubt or skepticism about something. When you're asking questions, you're expressing interest, curiosity, and a desire to learn or understand.
Imagine that you disagree with a colleague about a decision they made. You’re suspicious of their motives. Ask the following question out loud as you read this, in the way you might ask it if you’re expressing disdain, skepticism or distrust:
Why did you decide to do it that way?
Now imagine someone whose motivations you don’t doubt and whose judgment you almost always find on the mark. Imagine they’ve made a decision you disagree and you’re curious about their thinking. Ask the following question out loud, in the way you might ask it if you’re expressing curiosity or a desire to learn:
Why did you decide to do it that way?
Same question, different attitude. What words you emphasize, the tone you use, and perhaps even your facial expression and body language are all influenced by your attitude. The listener hears it differently, too, and their response will, in turn, be influenced by the intention they perceive in your question.
A list of questions prepared in advance can become a barrier to good listening and understanding. The Just-in-Time Question Method is a powerful alternative, helping you focus on generating a useful question just in time for its use.
The desire to use a prepared list of questions often starts as a useful learning crutch to avoid forgetting important questions or prevent yourself from not knowing what to say or ask next. But when a useful learning crutch becomes a long-term habit, it can create problems like these:
- You become so focused on the questions you want to ask that you don’t fully listen to the answers.
- You don’t allow yourself the freedom to go where the answers to your questions take the conversation, instead relying on the list as though it is a script
- You miss opportunities to ask other valuable questions because you’re too focused on the original list.
- As you work through your list it can feel like an interrogation or interview, causing you not to connect fully with the person(s) in the conversation with you.
- You allow the prepared questions to substitute for good curiosity in the moment and miss opportunities for greater understanding.
A very effective alternative is to generate just one useful question at a time, listen carefully to the response, and develop your next question based on that response.
Instead of queueing up your questions, allow each question you ask to be born from what was said in the moment before. If you are in the habit of queueing your questions, this will take some commitment and practice because it requires you to stay in the moment and listen deeply.
- Listen deeply to what was just said. Say it back, even, in your own words, to teach yourself to listen carefully.
- Breathe and wonder: What was just said that piqued my curiosity?
- Allow a question to be born that very moment.
- Ask it.
Afraid to let go of your prepared questions crutch/safety net? Draft your usual list of questions in advance, if you must. But tuck your list away when you sit down in conversation. Don’t look at it. Don’t let it become a crutch that distracts you. It is only there as a safety net if you need it.
Afraid you’ll miss an important question? You have your list in your wallet if you need to double check that.
Afraid you won’t know what to say? Trust that when you listen deeply, your response will be there.
Afraid you won’t ask something in the perfect way? You won’t ask it in the perfect way even with a list in front of you…there is no perfect way.
Afraid you won’t ask the right question? The right question is the thing you really want to know and understand, born in the moment.
With just a little bit of practice, this method for asking the right question at the right time will serve you extraordinarily well.
The “Will You” Question Method is useful for influencing someone’s behavior choices and can be more effective than simply telling them what you want them to do.
This method is useful when addressing an employee’s behavior, coaching someone who wants or needs to change a behavior, and when addressing difficult behavior in a mediation.
"Stay calm," you remind yourself in difficult moments. "Don't drink and drive," say the public service ads. "Be respectful of each other," some mediators say at the start of their mediations.
Clear and direct, you hope these messages influence behavior. But after combing through 40 years' worth of research on messaging and behavior, a team of researchers from four U.S. universities concluded that asking is better than telling when it comes to influencing your own or another's behavior.
"If you question a person about performing a future behavior, the likelihood of that behavior happening will change," says Dave Sprott, co-author from Washington State University. It appears questions prompt a psychological response that is different than the response to statements.
This means, for instance, that "Please recycle" is likely to have less impact than, "Will you recycle?"
For more takeaways from the research, see the first article in the Resources section below.
- Turn your instruction or request about a behavior into a question that directly asks them to do or stop doing the behavior.
- It can be most effective to begin your question with "will you...?" for reasons described in the article below.
- Wait for their reply! Questions seek answers and the answer to this one is crucial, as you are essentially striking a bargain with them. If they agree, they are more likely to honor that agreement. If they equivocate or say no, finding out why will give you important information for addressing the behavior.
When possible, ask for the behavior you do want instead of asking someone to stop the behavior you don't want. It's generally easier to stop doing something when it's replaced with doing something else. For instance, "Would you please stop interrupting her" is not as effective as "Will you please wait until she's done speaking?" or Example 3, below.
- Will you commit to arriving at work on time beginning tomorrow?
- Will you sit quietly for 5 minutes whenever you notice you're anger is building up?
- If you have something to add when she's speaking, will you jot it down on this paper so you can share it in a few minutes?
In conflict, asking someone if they can do something can run up against two complications:
- The hopelessness they feel about the conflict may cloud their ability to see the request as feasible.
- The frustration they feel about the situation may cloud their willingness to be amenable.
The “How Can” Question Method helps side-step both of these problems by engaging people’s problem-solving capabilities without first requiring them to say yes or no to an idea.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer points out that “can” and “how can” are vastly different from one another: "When you ask yourself *how* do you do something, you’re bypassing your ego in some sense. You’re just out there examining, fiddling with things trying to find the solution. If you ask yourself *can* you do it, then all you can appeal to is the past."
Think about the difference, for instance, between "Can you resolve this?" and "How can you resolve this?"
"Can you resolve this?" inquires about abilities, level of hope, and individual capacities.
"How can you resolve this?" inquires about avenues to take, solutions, and ideas. It neatly sidesteps ego and hopelessness and asks them, even for just a little while, to roll up their sleeves and explore.
- Replace “Can…?” with “How can…?”
Use the method in team meetings and mediations when you want to encourage exploration of an idea, solution, or decision without being fettered by the limitations of the past. It is most useful at the exploratory stage, before asking for a final decision or commitment.
Flip the Question is a way to break out of over-used, familiar question habits. And because it introduces an unexpected reversal of the initial question, it can push someone’s thinking into new territory.
- Take the question you want to ask or have asked, and flip it “over.”
- One way to flip the question is to replace a word with its negative, or vice versa. Can becomes can’t, won’t becomes will, do becomes don’t, and so on (example 1).
- A second way to flip the question is to replace a key word with one of the opposite meaning (example 2).
- A third way to flip the question is to change the point of view in the question (example 3).
- Sometimes, you have to re-word the sentence slightly to make the flipped question clear.
Use Flip the Question to stretch yourself into developing better questions and anytime you suspect the flipped question will open up new avenues for understanding or resolving the conflict. This advanced technique is as useful at the dinner table as it is at the conference table and the mediation table. It takes some practice to get used to flipping questions, and practicing this technique in low-stakes moments will make it much easier to apply it under pressure.
- What is wrong with him that he gets so angry? –> What is right with him that he gets so angry?
- What would make her see it my way? –> What would make me see it her way?
- Why won’t you listen to me? –> Why would you listen to me?
- How does that idea work for you? –> How doesn’t that work idea for you?
- What is stopping this team from functioning well? –> What is helping this team function well?
- How would you like him to help with housekeeping? –> How would he like you to help with housekeeping?
At first blush, some flipped questions seem absurd. But their very absurdity can produce surprising results. For instance, if a man is complaining how little his partner helps with the housekeeping, it may seem absurd (even a bit thick) to ask the question in Example 3, above. Yet the flipped question in that example can enable the man to consider ways that they each want help from the other when it comes to housekeeping tasks, turning a one-way complaint into a two-way conversation.
Questions that build understanding
One reason arguments, debates, and bickering go on and on is that the people involved aren’t solving the same problem, but are unaware of this. What is the problem we’re trying to solve? brings this predicament into clear focus without lecturing.
Hamster Wheel Debates are debates and arguments that go ’round and ’round without making much progress, like a hamster running endlessly on his little wheel.
Because they don’t create any forward momentum, Hamster Wheel Debates get frustrating. They sap our energy and rob our good will. And when they become a tired habit, born more of an accustomed reaction than a deliberate attempt to think things through or make a good decision, they can eat away at a relationship.
Hamster Wheel Debates are instantly recognizable because their hallmark is a repetitive trading of opinions and words.
Hamster Wheel Debates happen most often when:
- We’re solving different problems from one another. We don’t think we’re solving different problems. We think they’re solving the same problem we are. But when we look closely, we discover — with alarming frequency — that they aren’t.
- We’re cranky. Maybe we’ve had a long day at work, maybe we’re hangry, or maybe traffic just got the worst of us. When we’re depleted, it’s harder to resist that ol’ hamster wheel.
- We have ongoing tension with someone. When things are habitually tense, we’re more likely to notice the things we see differently from them. Maybe we even work harder to find the things we can disagree about, just to highlight how annoying they are. We almost welcome the hamster wheel’s seductive squeak squeak.
There’s a simple yet powerful question I’m very fond of for moments like these: What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?
This question is what I call a “stopper,” a simple mechanism that interrupts a behavior that’s not very helpful. Of course, lots of other questions could also serve as stoppers. But this question does more:
- It helps us see when we’re on entirely different train tracks.
- It prompts us to get clear on the issue we should be trying to resolve.
- It helps us notice when we’re arguing over something trivial.
- When you notice a back-and-forth argument that shows no signs of abating, ask the question, What is the problem you’re trying to solve here?
- Get their answers! The point of the question is to uncover whether or not they’re trying to solve different problems or problems worth their energy.
- When they answer, if the problem they each name is different from the other’s, explore what they want to do about that and how to frame the problem they can solve jointly (see Process Tools if you need help with this).
If you are part of the pair or group that has the problem, then “What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?” is the best form of this question.
If you are a professional mediator, and therefore not a party to your clients’ problem, then the best form of this question is, “What is the problem you’re trying to solve here?”
Use the question as a way to interrupt hamster wheel arguments, those arguments that go around and around without getting anywhere. The question is useful in group meetings, supervisory meetings, mediations, at home, and asked of yourself when you’re caught in a hamster wheel argument.
- When two people are criticizing each other, it’s difficult to stop bickering simply by asking them to stop. They may stop briefly, but will often be lured back into the same old pattern. By asking the question, however, you not only engage a different part of their brain, but also help them determine if they’re on the same page about the problem they’re solving and what to about it if they’re not. This will usually interrupt the bickering pattern more effectively.
- When team members are very engaged in solving a problem, and ideas are flying, it can be very effective to ask everyone to pause and write down in a single sentence the problem they think they’re solving. In many instances, as people read out their answers, it will become clear that they are not all on the same page about what they’re attempting to do — and even slight nuances can lead to different solutions. By taking this approach, you’ve illuminated a pothole in their problem-solving and can now help the group frame together the problem that merits attention.
- If you are working with a pair or group to solve a problem, and one or more people keep saying, “No, that won’t work” to each offered solution, it’s worth pausing to ask the question above. While there are other reasons people reject solutions, a common one is that they are solving a slightly different problem than others in the room.
When problems get stuck or seem to defy solution, one common reason is that effort isn’t going into the root problem. This often happens because it feels efficient to start problem-solving very early in a conflict resolution conversation, instead of taking the time to make sure everyone’s in agreement about the problem they can and want to solve together. It is worth slowing down to better understand and name out loud the problem to be solved, and the article below illustrates this point with a story.
While uncovering the root problem isn’t usually as simple as a single question, If you solve this problem, what would it do for you? is a powerful way to discover if the problem currently “on the table” is an important one to solve or if you need to delve deeper.
How do you know that you’ve arrived at the real problem that needs solving? How do you know you are deeply understanding the problem from the inside out?
One way, says Stanford engineering professor Bernard Roth, is with this question: “If you solve this problem, what would it do for you?”
In conflict resolution terms, we’d say this question helps get at interests, the underlying needs and wants that often remain unstated in a conflict. But it does more than get at interests — it also helps us get clearer on the problem that, when solved, will really make the difference.
This question is a central practice in design thinking, a problem-solving process useful for tackling complex problems by better understanding the human needs involved and re-framing problems in ways that illuminate lasting solutions. To learn more about design thinking, see the article in the Resources section below.
- When someone poses a problem, ask "If you solve this problem, what would it do for you?"
- You may need to ask this question several times as you slowly peel back the problem to see deeper into it, much like peeling the layers of an onion.
Use this question anytime you want to be sure you’re focusing on the meaningful and solvable root problem — in team meetings, supervisory meetings, mediations, coaching, and in your own life.
To read several examples, see the article in the Resources section below.
Thanks to William Ury’s Getting to Yes, most of us know about the importance of uncovering interests when we want to craft agreements that are meaningful and lasting. Despite that knowledge, it’s still possible to assume we know someone’s interests and fail to check out our guesses. A simple “Why?” (or one of its variations) can have profound implications for the solutions we can see.
For more on uncovering interests, please visit the Process Tools section of the Toolbox.
There are substitutes for “why?” that still honor the same intention, so you are not limited to the one-word question:
- Why is that?
- Can you say more about that?
- What does that solution achieve for you?
- Why doesn’t that solution work for you?
A note for professional mediators: When I teach mediation workshops, I occasionally hear that some mediation trainers warn strongly against ever asking the question “why?” Apparently this advice stems from concern that “why?” will sound too much like interrogation or a challenge. As with many tools, intention is the difference between elegance and a mess. Instead of wholesale removal of a crucial tool from your mediator’s toolbox, I recommend learning how to use it effectively!
When a negotiation is stuck or when someone keeps rejecting a solution, it’s important to stop trying to push or persuade and make absolutely sure you understand their most important interests. Even when — maybe particularly when — you're sure you know, check out your assumption anyway (see the article linked below for a story about this).
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is how managers and mediators can help people re-build trust after conflict. It’s an important question, but too big to answer when framed that way. Described below are three alternatives to the question, all of which take a more incremental orientation to trust re-building.
The intention behind the question is lovely and right. Yet the sheer scale of the question makes it nearly impossible to answer.
It’s impossible to answer because the answer can’t yet be known for sure. Rebuilding trust after a conflict is, after all, a process that takes place over time, one trust-building act followed by another, one trust-allowing thought followed by another. It is unknowable, at the start of trying to rebuild trust, whether or not it can be achieved.
There are better questions, ones that are answerable and help get things started. They don’t require a perfect plan, just a desire to consider what’s possible and get started. These more effective questions are informed by the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
It’s helpful to think of rebuilding trust as incremental, with two steps forward and perhaps one going back. I describe it to my clients this way, so that they understand trust-building isn’t a clear trajectory, constantly moving in the upward (improved) direction. It will be erratic, as they find their footing with each other after months — sometimes years — of trust eroding.
Here are three questions I’ve found very effective for discussing trust-building after conflict. You can use the “bite-sized” idea behind them to develop additional questions of your own:
- What is one simple thing you can do today to start rebuilding trust in each other again? We’ll worry about tomorrow later.
- What if, just for the next little while, you pretend to trust each other like you used to? No long-term commitment, just an experiment for an hour, one that you both agree to. How would you act in the next hour if trust were as strong as before?
- If you were ever to give him a chance to rebuild your trust in him, where would you want him to start?
What else could this be?
This question is excellent for tempering blind certainty, engaging curiosity, and sparking a shift in perspective. Use it to challenge someone's conclusion about someone else or a situation.
What is the most important thing you want me to understand?
Use this question when a person is unloading a lot of information and you’re feeling overwhelmed. A question like this helps them refocus and “chunk down” the conversation into bite-sized bits you can digest.
How has this been affecting you?
It’s very difficult to listen deeply when the things they’re saying feel unfair, unjust, or untenable. Use this question when you’re trying to listen but feeling defensive.
How can I help make this a conversation you want to have?
Use this question as a mediator or manager to explore what would encourage a reticent participant to sit down at the table. Use a variant of this question, How can I help make this a conversation you want to have with me? as a colleague, partner, spouse, parent or family member when someone is resistant to talking things out with you.
How can we make sure we can both continue to bring our best thinking to this problem?
Use this question when you want to suspend the conversation for now but they want to keep going. Continuing a conversation when you’re emotionally hijacked increases the odds it’s going to veer off course. The question itself leaves open the possibility that you may be able to stay in the conversation if something changes about the way it’s going. And the possibility that a break or a rescheduling is a viable — and possibly very smart — option.
Questions that generate and test solutions
One reason conflict reaches impasse or stalemate is that those involved hurry too quickly to problem solving, and in their hurry, miss the opportunity to fully understand the problem’s nuances — the very nuances that help uncover creative and viable solutions. One reason is the question people focus on from the very beginning of most conflict resolution conversations: How can we resolve this?
There’s a subtly different but much more powerful question to ask first: “What good problem can we find?” A problem-finding frame of mind helps ensure that you’ve laid the right foundation before problem-solving.
A group of students at the Art Institute of Chicago approached two large tables holding 27 random objects. They’d been asked to select some objects and draw a still life. Some examined just a few items, selected ones that interested them, and got right down to drawing.
Others handled more of the objects, turning them over many times before selecting the ones that interested them. They rearranged their chosen objects several times and took longer to complete the assigned still life.
Two University of Chicago social scientists were watching. Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of the renowned book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) then asked a panel of art experts to evaluate the resulting works without telling them the source of the drawings or anything about the study they were conducting.
The results were intriguing. The art experts judged the second group’s work as far more creative than the first group’s work. What’s more, in follow-ups about 5 years and 18 years after the study, those who’d taken the second approach were more likely to remain artists and have had success in the art world.
What differentiated the first group from the second? Csikszentmihalyi characterized the first group of students as problem solvers who were asking themselves, “How can I produce a good drawing?” He characterized the second group as problem finders who were asking themselves, “What good drawing can I produce?” Said Getzels, “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained.”
In conflict, it seems that the obvious question is, “How can we resolve this?” But the better question may just be, “What good problem can we find?” The difference seems subtle, even elusive, but Csikszentmihalyi’s and Getzels’ research suggests it’s also profound — and therefore worth teasing out.
“How can we resolve this?” focuses us on the end result — it encourages us, like the first group of art students, to pick a few options and get to resolution.
“What good problem can we find?” focuses us first on the experience and process of finding the meaningful joint problem before we attempt to design a lasting solution. It encourages us, like the second group of students, to turn over the problem many times, looking for the parts that interest us, rearranging it again and again so we can examine it from many angles. It takes longer, but it turns out to be more effective over the long run.
Great conflict resolution starts with great problem finding.
This question is most useful to you as an internal framework for you, as opposed to asking it aloud when helping others.
When I’m mediating, for instance, the anchoring question in my mind is, “What good problem can they find?” or “Have they found the good problem yet?” I hold off the problem-solving part of conflict resolution until some form of the problem-finding question has been answered.
Use this question and a problem-finding frame of mind early in a conflict resolution conversation. Make sure you have found the meaningful joint problem to solve before moving into problem-solving.
The Premortem Question is a way to future-proof a decision, helping people anticipate what could go wrong with their plan before they finalize an agreement. The goal of a conflict resolution conversation isn’t agreement — it’s lasting agreement, and the Premortem Method improves the chances of a lasting outcome.
In traditional problem-solving we learn to look ahead and consider the ramifications of our plan: What could go wrong? What will probably go right? How can we fail-proof the agreement or solution we’ve just worked so hard to craft? This is, of course, called foresight.
But if we tweak that approach and replace foresight with prospective hindsight, we get better results.
Prospective hindsight involves generating an explanation for a future event as if it had already happened; i.e., one goes forward in time, and then looks back. Instead of standing in the present and asking, What could go wrong? we mentally stand in the future and ask, What did go wrong?
Why does this work better? One reason may be the time shift in perspective. The cognitive "flip" from present-looking-forward to future-looking-back seems to help us more successfully identify places our agreement, decision, solution, or project could fail.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, whose bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow helped make the premortem idea well known, identifies two more reasons. It helps overcome the groupthink that can take over once a decision appears to have been made. And it helps prevent the suppression of doubt. Says Kahneman, "As a team converges on a decision—and especially when the leader tips her hand—public doubts about the wisdom of the planned move are gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of flawed loyalty to the team and its leaders. The suppression of doubt contributes to overconfidence in a group where only supporters of the decision have a voice. The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts."
Cognitive researcher Gary Klein, who coined the term premortem, says, "The premortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient’ has died, and so asks what did go wrong."
- Introduce the idea with language like this: It’s a year from now. You’re looking back on this day and shaking your head in regret because the decision you reached here was a spectacular failure (Klein’s phrase). What are all the plausible reasons it failed?
- Ask everyone to work on their own for a few minutes, writing down every reason they can imagine for the failure. Particularly encourage things they hadn’t originally said out loud for fear of being impolitic or seen as uncooperative. (An alternative approach is to ask people to write the story of the failure instead of a list. Sometimes the idea of telling a story frees the mind differently than list-making.)
- When working with a pair (business partners, for example, or a couple), invite each to take turns sharing items on their list, while you record them on a flipchart or whiteboard. Take care to reframe any accusatory language into terms that capture the failure reason without inflaming the situation.
- When working with a group, ask each person to read aloud one reason from their list and we go around the room this way until you’ve recorded all the reasons on a flipchart or whiteboard. (With a larger group, like a team, another approach is to split the group in two: One works on the reasons the decision failed, the other on why it succeeded.)
- Begin working through the list, using the items to strengthen the agreement and prevent the pitfalls.
A few important tips to keep in mind:
- The premortem should take place when you’ve almost reached an agreement or decision but haven’t yet formally committed yourself to it. You want enough detail fleshed out to have a solid decision to look back on, but not have fine-tuned so carefully you’ve inadvertently started feeling committed to it.
- Make sure that everyone who is knowledgeable about the decision is present.
- In business settings, I haven’t found the word “premortem” particularly problematic. I’ve found that in some personal settings, such as working with a family, the word sometimes makes people uncomfortable, perhaps because it invokes autopsy. So I will often skip using the label and just describe the activity.
- Sometimes it’s useful to conduct the premortem at a separate time from the drafting of the initial plan or agreement. If people are tired, I’d rather they have some energy for the activity, because otherwise, they may attempt to gloss over the process just “to get things over with.” That’s not the goal here, to do something for the sake of doing it. The goal is a decision, plan, or agreement that has a better chance of standing the test of time.
- If you’re worried the premortem will raise the conflict’s heat again: It could (though I find it rarely does). That’s not a good enough reason, in my book, to skip it. Fear of making things uncomfortable is a very unfortunate reason for going forward with a decision that hasn’t been adequately vetted.
- If you’re a professional mediator and find yourself hesitating about premortems in general or a specific premortem, it may be time for a look inward. What is motivating your hesitation? Sometimes an almost-done agreement is very seductive to a tired or tested mediator and we need to push ourselves to fully do our job and ask the question that could unravel parts or all of the agreement. Better for it to unravel while you’re still sitting there, than later, when you’re not.
Use the method when an agreement or decision is fairly fleshed out but not yet finalized.
When someone summarily rejects an idea or solution, the rejection can feel like a door has been firmly shut. The Door Reopener technique uses a short, straightforward question to explore the rejection and, by doing so, prevent the conversation from turning into stalemate.
In conflict and negotiations, people reject ideas and solutions for reasons like these:
- The solution doesn’t meet an important interest of theirs — or they don’t see how it does.
- The solution was offered too soon, before they’re ready to be amenable after a long period of tension.
- The solution solves a problem different than the one they care about solving.
- They view the solution as unfair.
- They feel judged, diagnosed, manipulated, etc, which makes them more inclined to stonewall.
When we sense someone resisting, it’s tempting to push harder or try to help them see the light. It’s often much more fruitful, however, to try first to understand the rejection. When you try to understand instead of trying to push, you continue dialogue instead of engaging in figurative battle.
Here are examples of door re-opening questions and invitations for such moments.
- Help me understand your thinking…
- What about that solution missed the mark?
- Ok, you’re clear that it can’t work. But if it could, what would it take?
- What would turn the idea from something unworkable into something possible?
- Let’s sleep on it and see if a better solution occurs to us when we’re rested. Can we plan to meet tomorrow at 9:00?
Even after a dispute seems to have been resolved or a conflict seems fully addressed, feelings of doubt, distrust, and tension can linger. Here are eight questions for exploring what’s happening.
What prevents someone from letting go and moving on after conflict? Here are some of the most common reasons I come across in my mediation and coaching work:
Something is unfinished for them. There’s something in the conflict that hasn’t been attended to sufficiently and continues to nag at them. Even if you feel it’s all done, that may not be their experience at all. Consider asking, Is there something we haven’t discussed that’s still lingering for you?
They fear a stone has been left unturned. They may think there’s something else that can still be done. Or that all the options weren’t thoroughly discovered and considered. Or that you all haven’t given it your best shot. Consider asking, Is there something we haven’t tried that you wish we had?
The conflict has become a habit. When states of conflict and tension go on long enough, they can become habits of mind (like stuck stories) and body (in the ways we interact). Even when a conflict has been attended to and there’s sufficient satisfaction with a resolution or agreement, the old habits may take longer to change. They may be waiting to see if the solution will really work. They may not even be aware that the old habits are still in play. Consider observing, I’m noticing you still do X when I do Y, like when we were angry with each other. Have you noticed that too?
There’s something they haven’t yet said or heard. Maybe there’s something on their mind and they haven’t drummed up the courage to say it out loud yet. Maybe there’s something they’re waiting to hear from you. Consider asking, Is there anything you’ve been waiting to say or hear?
It isn’t really over. Sometimes, hurrying to resolution can leave something undone or not understood. Maybe they felt compelled to agree to something they still have reservations about. Maybe the resolution served you more than it served them. Maybe the resolution didn’t really end up working for them after all. The list of possibilities here is quite long. Consider asking, Is there something about the problem between us that’s still unresolved for you?
You’re reading into it. Maybe you’re the one with the stuck story, the habit of mind or body. Maybe you suspect something wasn’t fully addressed. Maybe something’s eating at you. Consider asking yourself, Is the signal coming from them…or am I sending it to myself?
There’s an old mediator technique that can be useful for getting at why someone isn’t letting go and moving on from conflict: Transparency + curiosity. The technique is to observe out loud what you’re noticing and ask a curiosity-based question about it. Be kind, don’t judge, don’t accuse, just notice and wonder with them.
It might sound something like this: I find myself thinking that you’re not letting go of what happened, but I realize I don’t really know if that’s true at all. Am I off the mark?
Or like this: Things still feel tense between us. Why do you think that is?
If you ask these questions, you must be prepared that their answer may have much to do with what you’re doing or not doing as it does with them. These are questions that invite honesty in the name of real resolution. Try to resist pushing back if you don’t like their answer or if they have something difficult to say to or about you.
If you ask these questions, you must also be prepared that they may not want to answer them. Or that the answers they give leave you unsatisfied. These questions are an invitation and I have found them to be very powerful, but readiness to answer does matter. You cannot know when they will be ready. You can only ask them in a way that signals you care, are interested, and are open to whatever they’re willing to say.
It is natural for a personal or business relationship to feel “on edge” or tense even after those involved have talked through the conflict that divided them. Sometimes they may not yet trust that things will return to “normal,” and sometimes there’s a continuing problem that didn’t get sufficiently addressed in their initial conversation. Use the questions as soon as you notice the lingering tension or awkwardness; they are most helpful for identifying and helping you address important reasons the tension is continuing.