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Narrative Mediation: An Exercise In Question Asking

The narrative model is relatively recent on the mediation scene. This paper will highlight narrative mediation and apply it to a hypothetical dispute. It will also suggest that narrative mediation is best implemented through skillful question asking.

Linguists have identified a common fallacy of language called the “fundamental attribution error.” Also called the “self-serving bias,” it holds that persons attribute negative actions to others’ internal deficiencies (wrong values, poor upbringing, etc.) but view their own deficiencies as resulting from external causes largely beyond their control (traffic, actions of others, etc.). Likewise, in a conflict story a person will usually cast him/herself as the victim and the other as the victimizer (Cobb, 1994, p.57). Another linguistic error is “allness.” It includes terms like “all,” “always,” “everyone,” “never,” etc. One party might say to another, “You are always blaming me” or “You never show up on time to pick up Joey.” These are good terms when used correctly, but when used fallaciously they can distort reality and amplify conflict. In short, fallacies in thinking and language can cause a conflict to take on a life of its own.

Narrative mediation.

The narrative model holds that conflicts, in large, are socially constructed through the use of language. Each party generates a story (a narrative) of the conflict based on highly selected information. The parties will spend considerable effort developing their respective sides and discuss them with friends and supporters. Little consideration is shown for the welfare of the other. Narrative mediation attempts to put aside the conflict-laden stories and assist the parties in jointly constructing a new story that will govern their behavior and sustain an ongoing relational dialogue. It attempts to improve communication and build ways that future differences can dealt with.

Narrative mediation differs from traditional mediation in that the regulation of the process is not necessarily independent of the content. In addition, the agreement is not considered an outcome but rather a step in the right direction. The new narrative is essentially the basis for a revised relationship between the parties.

Narrative methodology.

Narrative mediation generally has three dimensions that don’t necessarily occur in linear phases. Generally, however, the first step is engagement (or story telling) followed by deconstruction of conflict patterns and ending with construction of an alternate story.

During engagement, the mediator (and co-mediator) will carefully listen to each conflict story. They will subsequently interview the parties regarding the affect the conflict is having on their lives. The mediator will listen for embedded needs and interests (e.g., to be listened to, to be treated with sensitivity, to be taken seriously, etc.). The mediator will also inquire about what elements of the stories have worked in the past. These data will be stored as dots to be connected in the newly constructed narrative.

During deconstruction the mediator will challenge assumptions the parties make about each other, about themselves and about the conflict. The mediators will get the parties to objectify and vilify the conflict, e.g., “Is this dispute like being mauled by a gorilla?” To further vilify the conflict, mediators will ask how parties have been tricked by the cunning nature of the conflict. The narrative mediator is quick to point out that the persons are not the problem, the dispute is the problem, and they must jointly control it.

Construction begins with the belief that a story of cooperation already exists and only needs to be uncovered. The mediator will ask such questions as “What from earlier times would you like to preserve?,” “What would you like the future to be like?,” “How might you guarantee fairness and mutual respect to each other?” The mediator will probe for unstoried elements (e.g., prior attempts at resolution) which may have relevance for the new narrative.

A narrative mediator realizes that once away from the table, parties will have a tendency to revert to old conflict patterns. To combat this tendency, a second meeting is often called to support and extend the new narrative.

Asking questions.

Strategic question asking is the key to implementing narrative mediation. It keeps the mediator’s role in proper perspective, i.e., not to give advice but to urge the parties to consider the larger picture. Additionally, question asking lessens mediator liability as it places the major content of the mediation solidly with the disputants. Parties are also encouraged to ask questions of each other.

Four question types are helpful. Most common is the open-ended question, which asks for an extended response. It invites the parties to relate the bulk of their stories. A closed-ended question is one that can be answered in a word or a phrase. Once answered, it is the questioner’s turn to talk. This type is useful when the mediator needs to regain control of the session, i.e., the mediator politely interrupts a response and with a closed question; once it is answered it is the mediator’s turn to talk. A third question type is the leading question. It is used when the mediator (perhaps, in caucus) wants a party to verify what is true or obvious, e.g., “You do want to make things better in the family, don’t you?” Perhaps the most valuable question type is the probing question. To dig beneath the surface of a prior response the probe might ask “How so?,” “Why?,” or “Tell me more.” The narrative mediator is trained to show curious inquiry which is made possible through probing questions. In answering probing questions, parties will often reveal reasons, needs and interests. Each of these question types allow the mediator to guide the process while the parties develop the content. These question types will be illustrated in the following case study.

Case Study.

[“The Missing Jewelry”]

This case involves a family dispute among three adult siblings–two brothers and a sister. Albert, the oldest child, is married to Isabelle, with two children. George, the middle child, is married to Janice, with one child. George is executor of the family estate. Christine, the youngest child, has lived with her partner for ten years. Their father is elderly and near death in a hospital. While in the hospital Christine approached her father and asked if she could receive some of her mother’s jewelry, including her wedding ring set. The father informed her that it was all handled by his will. However, at a family function, she noticed one of her sisters-in-law wearing her mother’s pearl earrings. Apparently, before entering the hospital, the father dispersed several family heirlooms, but only to his sons, including his wife’s jewelry. Christine was upset because she wanted to inherit her mother’s jewelry and felt it wasn’t right that it go to her sisters-in-law. She felt her father and brothers are somehow punishing her for not marrying. Albert believes it is important to value tradition and respect his father’s feelings. He wants to make sure the jewelry stays in the family. Albert and his wife, Isabelle, disapprove of Christine’s lifestyle. Christine has accused her brothers of ganging up on her; most recently they demanded that their father be taken to a hospital when she preferred a hospice. Christine is threatening legal action to reclaim her share of the jewelry. In order to preserve family harmony and avoid a costly lawsuit, George has proposed mediation. The only thing the siblings can agree on is that they don’t want to involve their elderly father in the dispute.


Two mediators were contacted by George who briefly offered his version of the dispute. With permission, his siblings were contacted for their respective views. The mediators requested the siblings write statements representing their sides of the dispute. After studying the written responses, the mediators identified some common threads that wove the conflict together. Based on this information, the mediators sent the siblings a letter that contained some opening statement information, offered some questions for them to reflect on, and clarified their fee structure.

Joint meeting.

The participants came together with the mediators to discuss the identified issues. The mediators used the opening statement to provide a welcome, introductions, and an overview of the process. The siblings were congratulated for choosing mediation, and the mediators reinforced the idea that by being present and willing to participate they were saying that preserving their family relationship was important.

The participants were provided an overview which included a discussion of the mediation process, including its purpose, the role of the mediators, and ground rules. The opening statement went as follows: Mediation is a confidential forum for you to talk about your difficulties and address the brokenness in your relationship. It is a dialogue in which neutral mediators facilitate a communication exchange in order to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. As mediators, we don’t psychoanalyze you nor do we tell you how to solve your problem. Rather we provide structure for the sessions, ask questions, listen, and facilitate some fresh thinking. There are a few ground rules you must all agree to: 1) each individual will receive uninterrupted talking time, 2) if you have questions or comments, jot them down on paper provided, 3) take turns, and 4) listen to each other. We now invite opening statements from each of you, beginning with Albert.


During engagement, each sibling shared his/her story. Albert spoke for seven minutes, followed by a five minute interview with the mediators. George spoke for ten minutes and was interviewed for five minutes. Christine spoke for seven minutes and was interviewed for five minutes. Following each presentation, one of the mediators summarized the content to the satisfaction of the speaker. During the interview sessions, the mediators posed a variety of questions: “What is the conflict doing to you? How is it making you feel? What are some recurring patterns of talk that tend to contribute to the conflict? How have you contributed to the conflict? What are you willing to apologize for? What positive qualities do you see in each of your siblings? Describe a time you felt supported by each. Describe a time you successfully solved a problem together. Could you give this conflict a label? Following the stories and interview sessions, the mediators provided time for the parties to ask questions of each other; they listened carefully for new revelations. The mediators then inquired about deeper needs and interests. “Albert, now that your siblings are listening; will you name one or two things you would like each to do (or not do) to raise the quality of your family relationship?” After the siblings had shared their respective stories, the mediators identified the following:

  • Albert and George valued family traditions.
  • Christine felt punished for not following traditional family values.
  • By being denied the jewelry, Christine felt she wasn’t considered an important member of the family.
  • Albert felt that it was important that his children someday inherit some of the family jewelry.
  • All three agreed that it was important to care for their father, although they differed in terms of how to best meet his interests.
  • Christine felt devalued by her brothers because they had formed a coalition against her.
  • All family members reported being uncomfortable with the communication patterns in the relationship.

Having achieved the above, the mediators moved to the deconstruction stage. One mediator responded, “Thank you for sharing your stories, and in doing so, sharing your concerns and needs. As we can see through our discussion and what you have shared, you are not the problem, the dispute is the problem.” The mediators used the following questions to vilify the conflict and help the siblings understand their underlying assumptions:

  • What has this conflict done to your relationship? [open question]
  • How has your desire to maintain family traditions affected your relationships with one another? [open question]
  • Albert, you indicated that you disapprove of Christine’s lifestyle. Why? [probing question]
  • Has your father’s poor health influenced this situation? [closed question]. How so? [probing question]
  • Albert, you say that George is always ignoring your advice. What do you mean by “always?” [probing question]
  • How is it that the conflict did not stop you from participating in mediation? [open question]
  • You all need to agree here. If this conflict were a thing, what would it be? [closed question]. Note: In this case they decided the conflict is a pariah.


At this point the siblings and the mediators had developed a clear sense of the underlying issues and needs. The mediators continued to use questions to move the siblings toward developing an alternative view of the conflict and how they will relate to each other in the future. As Winsdale and Monk (2000) note, “Only at this stage would a narrative mediator begin to problem solve with the parties. When a better relational pattern is developed, a problem-solving approach can then be effective” (p.90). The mediators used the following questions in the construction phase:

  • Given your understanding of the conflict, and your desire to repair your relationship, what might your next step be? [open question]
  • You are willing to repair your relationship and defeat this pariah. Aren’t you? [leading question]
  • What guidelines would you like to set for your future family visits? [open question]
  • If this dispute went away tomorrow, what would your relationship be like? [open question]
  • How would you like to be treated by your siblings? [open question]
The “how would you like to be treated” question provided a launch pad to get the siblings to identify higher-level relational issues. Through brainstorming and the use of leading questions, the siblings agreed that several factors were necessary for maintaining a healthy family relationship. The most important were:
  • Trusting each other
  • Respecting each other’s individuality
  • Commitment to each other as family members
  • Acknowledgement of each other’s concerns
  • Being mindful of the impact their statement had on each other
To support these higher-level issues, the siblings agreed to adopt several behaviors including active listening, concern for self and others, a willingness to self disclose, and a willingness to openly discuss their concerns. By transforming their relationship through identification of higher level issues and agreeing to adopt behaviors that would support those issues, the siblings were easily able to resolve the specific issues that brought them to mediation. The siblings agreed that they would share their mother’s jewelry. Among other items, the brothers agreed to give Christine the wedding ring set, as this was most important to her. Christine agreed that if she never has children, she will leave the jewelry to her brothers’ children. By solving this problem cooperatively, the siblings felt confident that they would be able to communicate fairly and respectfully regarding their father’s care. The siblings agreed to meet in one month’s time to discuss their progress.

Follow up.

At the follow-up meeting, the mediators used a series of questions to mark successes in the new relationship and solidify positive changes. The questions included: What have you been able to achieve since our last meeting? How has your relationship improved? What is working for you? What does this success say about you and your relationship? Narrative mediation can be an effective tool for problem solving; it is particularly useful as an instrument for going beyond the content issues and attempting to transform the relationship itself. A key assumption of narrative mediation is the relational focus that allows participants to reconstruct the conflict to not only resolve the immediate issues but to disengage from the conflict-laden stories in an attempt to achieve greater understanding. Question asking served to keep the mediators’ contribution in perspective.


Cobb, S. 1994. “A narrative perspective on mediation: Toward the materialization of the storytelling metaphor.” In New directions in mediation: Communication Research and perspectives. J. P. Folger and T.S. Jones (Eds.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Winslade, J., and Monk, G. 2000. Narrative mediation: A new approach to conflict resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Angela Nagao

Angela Nagao is a full time instructor at Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, California. She has a Master’s Degree in Speech Communication from California State University, Fullerton and she is a certified mediator. MORE >


Norman R. Page

Norman Page is a volunteer mediator through the Institute for Conflict Management, a subsidiary of St. Vincent de Paul, Santa Ana, California.  He mediates community, small claims and civil harassment disputes.  Dr. Page is professor of Human Communication at California State University, Fullerton where he teaches mediation. MORE >

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