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Questioning authority: teaching new mediators the value of open-ended questions

There’s a story I tell when I teach mediation students how to ask effective questions:

A guy walks into a bar. He strolls up to the bartender and asks for a glass of water. The bartender looks at him–then flies into a rage, pulls out a gun from under the counter, and aims it straight at the guy’s head. The guy thanks the bartender and leaves the bar.

I instruct my students to figure out the ending of the story using only yes/no questions.

People start asking, “Did the bartender know the guy?” “Was the bartender out of water?” “Was the gun loaded?” “Was the guy a robber?” “Was the guy sleeping with the bartender’s wife?” “Was it a water gun?”

A dozen or so questions later, they’ve given up. All the yes/no questions in the world can’t solve the puzzle for them. So I tell them that I’ll give them one more chance. This time they can ask me an open-ended question to figure out the ending of the story. Someone will then ask, “Okay, so why did the guy thank the bartender for pulling a gun on him?”

Then I say,

Funny you should ask. The guy walked into the bar and asked for a glass of water because he had the hiccups. The bartender saw immediately what the problem was but knew that the best cure for the hiccups is to scare the pants off someone. So he pulled out the gun and aimed it at the guy’s head. That cured his hiccups, so the guy thanked the bartender and left the bar.

What usually follows is the sound of loud groans, laughter, and palms smacking foreheads.

The point of course is that you can waste time and work hard asking closed questions and never come close to understanding what’s really going on. On the other hand open-ended questions give mediators plenty of traction to draw out interests, elicit solutions, and address roadblocks. They get parties thinking–which is exactly what they’re designed to do.

(Unfortunately I cannot take credit for this story–which is really a lateral thinking puzzle. One of my mediator friends–and I can no longer remember which one since it was quite a few years ago–taught it to me. Now I pass it along to you in the spirit in which I shared a negotiation style game earlier this year. Fellow mediation trainers, please free to use it.)

                        author

Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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