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The Mediator’s Toolkit: Formulating and Asking Questions for Successful Outcomes

The Mediator’s Toolkit: Formulating and Asking Questions for Successful Outcomes


Asking the correct strategic question at the right moment can make all the difference in a successful mediation outcome. All too often even well-trained, experienced mediators fall short of knowing exactly which questions work best, or why they need to ask them at a specific stage of the process. The right questions phrased correctly, asked at the right time for the right reasons, can unlock valuable hidden information, reveal a new way of looking at the problem, and lead to new self-realisation for the parties.

The Mediator’s Toolkit by Gerry O’Sullivan is a book that has been making waves in mediation training. Mediation trainees worldwide are recommending it informally to each other in chat boxes, sharing its clear charts and ideas, and supplementing their formal learning with its hands-on concepts. The book focusses on the way questions can succeed (or fail) in identifying the core of any given conflict, uncovering entrenched thinking, and achieving a profound shift in perspective for each party.

Author Gerry O’Sullivan, the director of O’Sullivan Solutions, is based in Ireland. She has more than thirty years of conflict resolution experience and has delivered mediation training internationally, including to Lawyers Without Borders. Her book offers an effective model based on what she terms the four key “S Questions”:

Subject matter: the people involved (each with their own internal and external narratives), the environment (physical, social, psychological) and the problem over which the mediation is convened. The interaction of these elements, the PEP, makes each conflict unique.

Structure of questions: The questions can be closed (yes, no answers) or open questions (Who? Where? When? How? In what way? What if?). Interestingly, O’Sullivan advises strongly against the use of “Why?” as it can come across as judgmental and arouses unhelpful defensiveness.

Seeking information: Inviting the parties’ perspectives, and uncovering exactly what they believe and what they think of the PEP elements, is a deliberate process of questioning that aims to clarify the full picture of the conflict.

Shifting thinking: There are at least eight categories of questioning that will achieve this ultimate goal of a paradigm shift in the parties minds. A mediator can use O’Sullivan’s book as a ready reference to sharpen their grasp of “journey of inference” questions; neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) questions; distinctions and differences questions; reflective / connecting questions; cognitive questions; questions from the perspective of others; underlying interest questions; and future focus questions. O’Sullivan dedicates a chapter to each of these paradigm-shifting categories in a practical format that is easy for a mediator to look up for a quick refresh.

O’Sullivan explains the theory behind each question type, citing influential neuroscientific and psychological theories and studies. There is a section on how the human brain functions, including the nervous system and the Amygdala response in stressful situations. The SCARF drivers model is laid out as well: the role of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness are explained in terms of how parties perceive and respond to the social situation surrounding the conflict.

O’Sullivan helpfully explains a methodology for minimizing an avoid-threat “amygdala hijack” response during the mediation. She lays out the purpose of different question types; how to ask them so that they work best; when to use them; and how to transition questions from one stage into the next gently, so that the parties always feel safe. Her methodology includes always holding separate private meetings prior to the joint mediation session, to build trust and to gain as much early insight as possible about each parties’ concerns. O’Sullivan’s popular online workshop is based on the teachings of this book. Most helpful are the filmed mediation roleplays videos she shares, demonstrating just how to apply each chapter’s theories in a real setting.

For mediators looking to hone their questioning skills, and who wish to have a practical toolkit at their fingertips to plan a sequence of effective questions appropriate for their parties’ case, this book is invaluable.

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