Divorce Mediators and The Art of Asking Questions

ChildSupportMediationCouple-300x200As a divorce attorney and divorce mediator, I often ask questions to learn more about my clients and their cases. Many aspects of law revolve around the ability to ask the right questions at the correct times. Recently, I attended a conference at the New York State Council of Divorce Mediation, to further my education on Divorce Mediation and network with my peers. During that event, Kenneth Cloke, JD, Ph.D., and LLM provided an interesting training session on the “art of asking questions.” This session raised some interesting insights in the questions in divorce and family law mediation cases, and I’ve written this blog to share those insights with you.

In any legal case, asking the right questions is crucial. For a divorce mediator, asking questions can be complicated and even dangerous, because it sparks emotional responses in clients. Sometimes, you need to ask the difficult questions to get to the deeper meaning behind certain issues and domestic disputes. One thing that all divorce attorneys and mediators see, is that the disputes between parties in a divorce are often two-dimensional. Dr. Cloke points out, usually, a husband or wife complaining about dirty dishes left in the sink isn’t just about the dishes – it’s also about the lack of respect that someone shows when they ignore something important to their spouse.

Getting to Real Meaning Through Questions

As Kenneth Cloke discussed in his session, divorce mediators can draw additional information out of a conversation by asking the right questions. The right questions push people to re-think the way that they’re presenting information and share their emotional responses to conflicts. In other words, mediators can add a third dimension to the conversations that arise in a divorce case. However, it’s often difficult to find the right balance between questions that provoke more profound thought, and queries that lead to negative emotional responses.

Without the right questions to give depth to the reasons behind an issue, it’s difficult for a mediator to find a solution that really satisfies both parties. Some of the questions that mediators can ask to encourage a deeper conversation between their clients focus on getting to the “why” of a problem. For instance:

  • Why is that an issue for you?
  • What’s the real problem for you?
  • What are we not talking about that we need to address?

A suggested question at the beginning or another point in the conversation might be to ask what they’re going to drive home and kick themselves for not saying later. Usually, this pushes clients to think about what they’re going to say on a deeper level. Questions that push people to address their concerns from a three-dimensional perspective lead to a deeper, more valuable discussion that can lead to actual solutions that might last.

It’s only in dealing with the emotional level of a conflict that a mediator and the parties they work with can come with lasting solutions to issues. For instance, a client might refuse to give up any of their collection of records – even the ones that they don’t like when their partner asks for a share during equitable distribution. On the surface, an argument like this can seem petty, until you dive into the emotional reasoning behind it. If the reason that the person doesn’t want to give up on the records is that it reminds them of all the good parts of the relationship, then this might be something the other partner can understand.

Solving Problems on an Emotional Level

Divorce mediators such as I need to ask the right questions to move clients into an emotional environment where we can solve real problems. For instance, when working with a couple on a prenuptial agreement, after this training by Dr. Cloke, I might ask them what they love about each other, what they struggle with, and what one thing in their relationship is that they never want to deal with again. The more in-depth and emotional the questions become, the easier it is to have a valuable heart-to-heart discussion with clients.

In a divorce, as Dr. Cloke suggested, I might ask one party “What would you want to say if this was the last conversation you were going to have with your other half?” Or, “What is one thing you would most like the other person to acknowledge you for?” Other common questions that can drive more emotional responses include:

  • What do you remember fondly about your relationship?
  • What do you regret the most?
  • What is one thing you wish for the other?
  • What does child or spousal support mean to you?
  • What does your family home mean to you?
  • Which issue do you feel the most passionately about here?

If a conversation seems to be getting out of hand and leading to an argument, then Dr. Cloke suggested we can try and break the cycle by asking whether I can present a question such as “Is this conversation really working for you?” If the answer to that question is “No,” I can continue by asking, “What could the other person do to make the conversation more productive?” I can also help to reduce the feelings of anguish and anger in a discussion by asking why each member of the discussion wants the conversation to work, and what’s so important about it.

Getting to the Deeper Conversation

Mediation is a valuable process for many people in the divorce process. Through questions that engage clients on a deeper level and immerse the couple in the emotional side of their discussion, it can be quicker and easier to come to a resolution for a problem.

In some cases, it won’t be necessary to go into the deeper conversation or reasoning behind arguments if the discussion is leading to progress. However, emotionally provocative questions can sometimes be the best way to get past the sticking points in a complicated divorce process.

To find out more about divorce mediation, litigation, and other dispute resolution solutions, reach out to my office today to book your 30-minute initial consultation, up to the first thirty minutes is free. Spouses interested in mediation will be asked to attend their initial session together. Contact us at (516) 333-6555.