It can be hard to get a dialogue started when parties have already begun taking and defending positions in a conflict. Yet participants to a conflict often don’t have a common understanding of what it is they are discussing and aren’t really listening to what the other side is saying. One method we regularly use to move parties from debate to dialogue is the Question Formulation Technique created by the Right Question Project. This technique involves a written prompt followed by several simple steps:
- Brainstorm – Come up with as many questions as you can;
- Prioritize – Choose three questions you want to explore further;
- Change closed ended questions to open ended questions;
- Branch – Off – Choose one of your three questions and brainstorm more questions about it;
- Prioritize Again – Look over your list of questions and choose the one to three you want to address now.
The Question Formulation Technique teaches people to form and use open ended questions, which are phrased to require descriptive, rather than yes or no, answers. The questions help participants understand or recognize dimensions of a subject that they may not have considered before. By focusing on open-ended questions, the Question Formulation Technique helps participants to shift from debate to dialogue, and gives them new tools for moving through conflict.
Thinking in questions has a number of benefits. It helps the parties both to ‘unpack’ the range of issues involved and additional information needed. It promotes better understanding and relationships between participants. By changing existing debate-oriented phrasing and “triggers”, this kind of question-based dialogue helps to mitigate existing conflict and avoid future escalation of the conflict. Also, this technique often increases the number of participants in a discussion. Participants who are reluctant to make statements in a debate are often comfortable offering questions for further consideration. Finally it helps prevent a premature election of solutions that they may have come prepared to defend and allows for the generation of new options. One caveat to using this process though: The prompt used to initiate the question- generating dialogue needs to be carefully drafted to encompass the subject area and also to support the formulation of open-ended questions and productive dialogue.
Next week we will talk about the shape and application of two dialogue structures, the Conversation Café and the World Café.