Questions aren't neutral. The way we ask them communicates how we think and feel about other people. Contempt, respect, shock – it all comes through even when we don't plan for it.
Which is why it's so important to know how to ask the right questions. They're like a key: no matter how hard you try, if you don't use the right one then the door's going to stay shut. Trying to force an answer from a person can be like trying to break down a door – you might break through, but the damage done in the process might be permanent.
Steinar Bryn, our facilitator at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD), describes the process
of asking questions during sessions between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians before and after the 1999 war. While not all the conflicts in our lives are as destructive as the one in Kosovo was, what happened in those dialogue sessions is surprisingly universal:The two parties were invited to ask each other questions on the condition that they spent plenty of time preparing the questions as well as preparing the answers. These questions would often be very specific – how do you feel about what happened on a specific day? Do you feel guilty? Do you feel any responsibility? There was a stronger need on both sides to hear which actions the others acknowledged happened, and took responsibility and accepted the guilt for.Although the citizens had spent only a few years apart, the curiosity about everyday life on the other side was high. How much is the coffee? How many hours of electricity do you have? How much water? Internet-access? – I got the feeling that both sides felt the other had gotten the better deal. Much of this was corrected in direct conversations and there was also a sense of more balance in the room, compared to the pre-bombing seminars, where the Albanians dominated the verbal attacks.
While using the method of asking each other questions, a Serb leader from Mitrovica North asked "Why did you not help us last winter when the electricity was cut off in our villages?" This was a rhetorical question asking for the admission of "we didn't help you because we wanted you to move." Soft ethnic cleansing. The surprising answer was that electricity was cut off in Albanian villages too. The Serbs had been convinced that the cut-off had been ethnically motivated. In further conversation with each other they discovered that an Irish company cut off electricity to everyone who did not pay for the services.
Through giving time to prepare important questions (and in resisting the desire to give impulsive answers), participants were able to encounter other sides of the story and come closer to a common truth.
Questions need time to prepare. But even long before that point there had to be a lot of other work done so that participants could really start digging into the roots of the conflict.