Dialogue Approach

Asking the Right Questions

One of the most important dialogue skills is knowing how to ask the right questions. And being prepared for surprising answers.
"You never cared about us, did you?"

"How could you even think something so monstrous?"
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.
One of the biggest obstacles to dialogue is bringing people to the table. This can be for any number of reasons.

There can be a conviction that talking legitimizes the other side. Perhaps one or more of the parties are working through personal trauma. For some there may be a sense that they'd have something to lose by speaking to other groups. Still others might see the opposing side as a threat that needs to be removed rather than engaged with.

(Picture: ruined buildings after the 1999 conflict in Kosovo)

What Made You?
Summer school students are not your usual dialogue participants. When the NCPD works with groups in the middle of a conflict, certain structures have to be in place to ensure a constructive encounter with the other side. Often each group has experienced some kind of loss, sometimes extreme loss, making it difficult even to sit in the same room as people they see to as oppressors. In cases like these people arrive already at each others' throats. We, on the other hand, did not.

But regardless, Steinar prepared us for the process by asking a question that we would need time to prepare an answer for: what made you?

While it might seem a weird or obvious question, it involves a number of reflections similar to ones that dialogue participants go through: what are the steps that brought me here today? What's happened in my life that led me to believe what I believe? What do I believe, really? What made me who I am?

It was an icebreaker and also more than an icebreaker. It was an attempt to prep us to think about questions we'd spend much of the next week asking each other.
An Opportunity To Be Curious
Once we'd all had time and space to share about what 'made' us, we started an exercise that's become a staple in Nansen Dialogue processes. We were divided into groups according to where we came from: Norway, Ukraine, the Balkans, the United States, Latin America (Colombia & El Salvador) and Russia. Once we met in our respective groups, our task was to think of one question we'd like to ask the other groups. It could be anything at all but it had to be reached by consensus.

I was told a number times that the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue doesn't follow concrete 'strategies.' For them, it's more important to adapt to the quirks of an individual process than to try to impose a one-size-fits-all approach. This came into play when two delegates from Hawaii requested, on the grounds of imperialism, to be treated as a separate group.

All in all, there were seven small groups which had to think of six questions, one for each of the others. When thinking of what we had to ask, we were told to take this as an invitation to be curious. Is there anything particularly interesting about that group? Do we have any beliefs about them that might be stereotypes? Is there anything about them that just doesn't make sense to us?

Once we had an idea of what we wanted to find out we had to ask ourselves: what makes a good question?
What Helps Us Ask The Right Questions?
Curiosity About The Other
One of the first principles of asking the right question is actually being interested in what the other person has to say. The other side is going to know if we're asking for the sake of asking, or to score points with our friends, or to make some third party happy. Few things open us up more than knowing there isn't an agenda behind the other person's interest.

Curiousity also helps us think about what we'd
really like to know about the other person. Why do they do things we don't understand? Do they know that it's offensive to us, and why? What might be the behind their need to do that action? How do they feel when we do or say certain things?

Not curious: Why did you do that?
Curious: I've never heard your side of the story. What does it look like?
A Desire To Understand
Rather Than Convince or Judge
Loaded or rhetorical questions often conceal some kind of judgement – often an accusation or a claim to know the 'right' answer. In both cases, this kind of judgement either tries to shame or convince.

The 'right' kind of question, alternatively, is one that allows us to deepen our understanding of the other side and their motives, histories and needs.

Judging: How could you think that?
Convincing: If you knew how bad that was, would you have acted differently?

Understanding: Could you tell me what led to your making that decision?
Open vs Closed
A question can be curious and oriented towards understanding while still being 'closed.'

By closed, we mean a question that can be answered with a yes or a no. An open question asks for a more detailed answer, one that digs deeper into the issue. The often proves more condusive to dialogue and mutual understanding.

Closed: Did you feel hurt by the war?
Open: What about the war hurt you the most?
An Attitude of Collaboration
One of the most powerful 'keys' that unlock a dialogue's potential is when both sides start understanding they're collaborators searching for truth rather than competing laywers each trying to prove their case.

Asking questions that show a willingness to work with the other side can go a long way to transforming a conflict from a zero-sum game to a situation where both parties can have their needs acknowledged and, hopefully, addressed.

Competitive: What can you tell us that we don't already know?
Collaborative: We've heard different things from different sources – what happens if we try putting them together?
Asking For Clarification
When there are a lot of sides to a long-standing conflict, parallel stories can emerge that make it hard for participants to understand other
perspectives. This gets even more complicated by the 'narratives' we possess about who the other group is, what they believe and why they do certain things. If we aren't in contact with them, or if our contact's constantly hostile, we may never find out if our image of them is true or not.

Asking for clarification (and giving the other side a chance to correct the record) can help us overcome our narratives and engage with the others as they are (rather than with who we think they are.)

Making assumptions: Why do you believe that?
Asking for clarifications: From where I stand it seems like you believe this. Is that true, or am I missing something?
It took us some time to agree on our questions, and after we gathered all together to ask them we were given more time in small groups to think of answers.

That was the more complicated part. But that's a story for another day.
Josh Nadeau is a writer and dialogue practitioner. In June 2018 he participated in the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue summer school.