Article: Strategic Questions for Dispute Resolvers
by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2011 by High Conflict Institute
Askingquestions is one of the most powerful – and often misused – tools forprofessionals in dispute resolution settings, whether legal, workplace, mediationor anywhere. When you are dealing with high-conflict clients, it is especiallyimportant to consider the timing of different types of questions and also to knowwhat questions you should never ask. Whether you’re meeting with an individualclient or meeting with two or more clients together (such as in mediation orsolving a workplace problem), the following principles generally apply.
The secretto managing high-conflict clients is to manage your own anxiety. One of thethings that most professionals do when they’re anxious is to ask lots ofquestions. It gives the illusion of being in charge and of working on theproblem, which distracts us from our fears or uncertainties regarding how todeal with a potentially difficult client. However, this often makes thingsworse and interferes with the most important first issue, which is forming apositive working relationship.
High-conflictclients usually have a history of broken relationships with family, friends andprofessionals. Thus, they feel extremely anxious when seeking the services of anew professional, or being required to use the services of a professional thatthey don’t want (such as a court evaluator or when required to use a workplacecoach). Their anxiety is contagious, so we often catch it and – without evenrealizing it – pepper them with questions. Our own anxiety is also contagious,so that high-conflict clients often increase their resistance to us whenpeppered with questions, and the power struggle begins – and may never end.
Equally asproblematic, is when they respond in the opposite way, so that they stop tryingto say their concerns and become passive and just answer the professional’s manydetailed questions. In this case, they assume that the professional will figureeverything out and take care of it, with little participation by the client. Then,if the professional missed something important to them (which usually happens),they become very angry.
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