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Questions to move people towards agreement

When you find yourself in a dispute resolution role, it is easy to slip into ‘interrogator’ or problem-solver mode, and either over-focus on ‘facts’ or move too quickly into solutions and options.   Adjust your orientation so you are asking questions not for your own understanding but also and more importantly to help the other person make sense of their position, interests and needs.  Once they are clear about these, then resolution will be far easier.

A simple way of adopting a ‘curious questioner’ mode is to follow the ‘SPIN’ structure originally developed by Neil Rackham as a method of selling. This will ensure you ask questions which will lead to resolution, rather than drive people deeper into their positions.   This also helps you avoid the pitfall most managers stumble into, which is trying to resolve a conflict for someone rather than with them.

Using SPIN to move to resolution

  1. Situation questions. What’s going on, what are the facts as they see them. “Could you tell me about the situation?” “What’s been going on for you?” “Tell me what has happened.”
  2. Problem questions.  These help the person explore and explain the pain of their situation.  “How did you feel about that?” “How has this affected you?” “What was it like for you when that happened?”
  3. Implication questions. This helps the person see the wider picture and explore the effects of the problem on them, their role,their relationships at work, their career, their health. “What impact is this having on you?” “What have been the consequences of this?” “What might happen if this goes on?”
  4. Need questions.  These help the person find out what the value and benefits of different options are, which could help them to resolve the things that have come up during the “implication” phase.”Would it be useful to …” “Why would you find that solution so useful?” “Would it help you if …”

Ensure your questions don’t become interrogative

  • Soften questions with rapport building openers.  “I’m wondering…” “I’d like to ask you about…” “Can we just move on to talk about…” “Is it okay if I ask you about…”
  • Use neutral language.  “What stops you from doing that?” is better reframed as “What needs to change in order for that to be possible for you?”
  • Manage your interruptions. If you interrupt someone in mid-flow to ask them a question, ensure you acknowledge the frustration your interruption might cause before asking the question.
  • Probe, don’t pry.   Why are you asking this question?  If it is not helping the party to articulate what is important for them, it’s probably prying!

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