Open-ended questions

On my second day of mediation training (halfway done with the full training!), I received an awesome compliment from one of the facilitators. She said that I have a talent for open-ended questions.

I especially appreciated this compliment because I really like asking open-ended questions.

What is an open-ended question? (Yes, that was an example of one.) An open-ended question is any question that cannot be answered with a “yes”, a “no” or another one word answer such as a number or color. An open-ended question provokes a meaningful response.

It reminds me of a management lesson I learned from the Interactive Institute for Social Change when I took their workshop, Managing with Impact, a few years ago.

The main thing I took from the management workshop is that it is important for a manager to balance inquiry with advocacy. When we advocate as managers, we give people advice, direction, instructions, or solutions to their problems. When we practice inquiry, we use open-ended questions to help the person being managed to find insights into their situation or problem or come to a solution.

My feedback from the management workshop leaders was that I could do more advocating, and a little less inquiry. I think I am still on the side of being more of an inquirer than an advocate, but I have become better at advocacy as my experience has grown. In some situations, I have been too far on the advocacy side of the balance. Advocating feels like a lot of pressure sometimes, because as a manager I don’t usually have as much information to advocate for a solution or an approach, and I need to rely more on my intuition.

A mediator’s job is only to reflect, reframe, and inquire. It is unlike a manager’s job in that no advocacy is expected or desired. I am really enjoying the opportunity to practice open-ended questions and inquiry with mediation training. I recommend it for managers who want to become better at the inquiry side of the balance.

Applying mediation techniques to management situations

Yesterday I had my first day of mediation training with the Conflict Resolution Center. I’m not sure if I will apply to become a mediator or not, but I am enjoying brushing up on my listening and conflict resolution skills. There are a number of things I can take out of the mediation training and apply to management, without conducting a full fledged mediation process.

For one, I (like many managers) have a tendency to problem-solve when people come to me with problems or concerns, and I think in some cases it would serve both me and the person coming to me better if I practiced more active listening techniques instead. I know that this is best practice since if you can help an employee to find their own solution, the solution will work better and they will learn and grow. Plus the people I work with are all really smart and come up with better solutions than I could come up with myself in many cases. Sometimes its hard to remind myself not to problem solve though when I think I have the best answer.

In particular, here are some techniques for asking open ended questions that I could use at work with my employees: (If any of you are reading, I hope this doesn’t ruin the surprise.)

*Asking Open Ended Questions: What brings you to my office today? What is your major concern about the project?
*Asking Clarifying Questions: I’m not sure I understand. Could you say more about that?
*Reflecting Content: So the project is on track, and until recently all of the stakeholders were on board…
*Reflecting Feelings: You sound really frustrated/upset/pleased.
*Reflecting Values: External colleagues seeing that you are good for your word is important to you, is that right?
*Reflecting Body Language: I notice that your arms were crossed and you were pulled away from the table during our group meeting today. Can you say what you were feeling or thinking?
*Periodically Summarizing: So things have been getting worse between you and George.

Speaking of problems, here’s one I would not want to solve myself: a fire hydrant that burst in my neighborhood last year.

I have three more days of training in mediation over the next two weeks, so I’ll post more of my lessons in applying this mediation training for managers as I go.