Conflict Resolution: Why Ask Why?

Conflict Resolution: Why Ask Why?Once I was asked what one thing an individual could do that would improve his or her ability to solve problems.

My short answer…Be curious!

I learned the importance of this virtue while serving on the roster of certified mediators for the supreme court of Virginia, which included some very interesting experiences at the general district court level.

One of my favorite cases involved a representative from an animal shelter and a woman who had recently adopted a cat. The animal shelter was demanding that the cat be returned because the new owner had apparently violated the terms of the adoption agreement by allowing the cat outside her house. The owner accused the animal shelter of hiring private detectives to “stake out” her house and document the comings and goings of the fearless feline.

At first glance, it seemed that these positions were absolutely mutually exclusive; the owner emphatic about allowing the cat outdoors and the animal shelter equally emphatic about it living strictly indoors.  We thought that the judge would have to settle the case…until I asked a simple question of both the shelter and the owner.

“Why do you insist that the cat be kept inside?  Why do you insist that the cat be allowed outside?” From a judicial perspective, such a question might seem irrelevant, but as a mediator, I was allowed to ask such questions, and here’s what they said.

Shelter rep: “Because we didn’t save this animal only for it to be run over by a car in the street.  We want to make sure it lives a full, happy and healthy life.”

Owner: “Because I didn’t adopt this cat only for it to be cooped up inside a building all the time.  I want to make sure that it enjoys life, and I can tell that it is very happy when it goes outside.”

Then, a fascinating shift occurred:  These two people who had come to court with righteous causes and unwavering attitudes about their positions all of a sudden softened up for a moment.  The accusations of spying came to a halt.  The accusations of kitty abuse disappeared.  Both people realized that they had a shared interest: the well-being of the little kitty. The next step was to begin problem-solving together.

The solution: a cat fence!  This was a solution that both parties could live with and both left mediation that day very happy.  Had they gone to the judge, one would have left happy and the other full of vengeance.  All it took to solve this problem was a simple question: Why?

By asking questions, we allow ourselves the opportunity to gain information without assuming it.  Assumptions are often wrong and–when acted on–can often lead to horrible misunderstandings or misfortunes.

By asking questions, you communicate to someone that you actually care to know what they think. This can relax a tense situation and ultimately lead to much more productive dialogue.

When in doubt, you can virtually never go wrong by asking questions.

People often resist asking questions because they don’t want to be seen as not already having the answers.  Depending on the context, this can be a very real concern, but one has to weigh the cost with that of not knowing the answers.

Simple phrases for enlivening problem-solving conversations:

“Can you help me understand your perspective on this?”

“Why do you feel that way?”

“What do you think is the best way to go about this?”

“What has worked before?”

“Why might this not work?”

“Who else might we want to bring into this?”

“Could you say a little more about that?”

“What are you most/least excited about?”


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As a skilled trainer and facilitator, Shawn brings his extensive experience, to all the workshops and events he leads. If he's not planning a program, you'll find him exploring new tech for our business or sharing a Jamba Juice with his daughter, Sophia.

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