You’ve heard the expression ‘conflict is an opportunity’. But you’re not sure how to create opportunities when you’re dealing with difficult people or aggressive behaviours. This article explains how asking the right questions – solution-focused questions – can help you turn tantrums into collaborative conversations.

Solution-focused questions direct attention towards ways of solving problems. At the same time, they shift the focus of a conversation away from ‘blaming, shaming or proclaiming’ behaviours. This means they’re a very useful tool for dealing with difficult people in fight mode. Once you master solution-focused questions, you’ll be able to:

  • Treat criticism as an attack on the problem, rather than reacting defensively
  • Shift energy towards sorting out issues, rather than dwelling on why that issue exists
  • Respond to blaming statements by redirecting the discussion towards solving the problem and resolving conflict
  • Help highly emotional people shift back into logical thinking mode

So what’s involved in asking solution-focused questions? The main thing to remember is that you’re using questions to direct the conversation towards positive results. If a difficult co-worker is talking about how bad a problem is, use questions to get them thinking about how to solve it. If they’re screaming about who is to blame for a negative situation, ask them what needs to happen to improve the situation.

It helps to use six guidelines when asking solution-focused questions.

1. Give the other person 90 percent of airtime

You’re doing an excellent job of solution-focused questioning if the other person talks for 90 percent of the time. Obviously, this means you should talk for no more than 10 percent of the time. The rest of the time you should be listening actively. When you do contribute, your input should consist of questions and reflective statements only.

Actively avoid commenting on the other person’s ideas, telling your own stories, making suggestions or giving advice. All of these behaviours can be interpreted as directive or intrusive, so they are likely to trigger defensive reactions if you are dealing with difficult people or contentious issues. Remember that the point of asking solution-focused questions is to give the other person space to express, expand and refine their ideas. Even when other people use difficult behaviour you can listen to them.

2. Use Socratic questions to guide positive thinking

Named after the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, Socratic questions are teaching questions. The purpose of using Socratic questions during the conflict resolution process is to engage people in problem-solving. This means using your questions to guide others’ thinking processes. Use a systematic questioning process to break larger issues into manageable pieces and to promote a logical approach to sorting out problems.

Remember that good teaching questions focus on building optimistic thinking patterns. They direct attention towards possibilities for action, rather than spotlighting the past or drilling down to the details of the problem. When you’re in solution-focused mode, ask questions that prompt for positive, new ideas about how things can change in the future. For example:

  • If this problem was solved tomorrow, what would be different?
  • How would you like things to change?
  • How could this problem be so solved?
  • What are all the options for solving this?
  • What can you do about this?
  • What steps can we take to sort this out?

Remember that every question you ask should have a problem-solving purpose. Avoid asking for irrelevant details about how the problem is manifesting itself or why the problem exists. Instead, prompt the other person – even if they are a negative person – to take ownership of the problem-solving process.

Creativity is everywhere

3. Stop others from dwelling on negatives or revisiting the past

When someone is telling a story about how bad their problem is, or what caused it to develop, their attention is in the wrong place. To help them find solutions, you need to interrupt tales of the past, ‘poor me’ stories and detailed accounts of who said what to whom. You can do this by using one of the following statements.

  • Let’s focus on how to solve the problem rather than what caused it
  • We can’t change the past, but we can make active choices about the future. Let’s talk about how to move the situation forward
  • I know those past events upset you. Let’s talk about how you want things to be in the future
  • Yes, that was a problem, wasn’t it? When the situation changes, what will be different?

4. Keep your advice to yourself

If you’re giving advice or sharing your own experiences, you’re no longer encouraging others to think for themselves. So hold back. Avoid telling others what to do, as this is likely to spark resistance and make you look aggressive. When you’re in solution-focused mode, avoid statements starting with phrases such as:

  • How about…
  • Have you tried…
  • Could you…
  • You should…
  • You need to…
  • Try…
  • I had a similar problem once…

Instead, use questions such as:

  • How could you solve this?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What could you do!
  • What do you feel you should do?
  • What do you need in this situation?
  • What else could you try?
  • Have you ever solved a similar problem? What did you do that time?

5. Talk as though multiple solutions exist

The words you speak have a direct impact on how others tackle problem-solving. If you ask ‘What’s the solution to this problem?’ the other person will think of only one solution. This might obstruct the process of resolving the issue, since the other person might then refuse to consider other options.

Luckily, you can reduce the chances of this happening by changing your wording. Use phrasing which implies multiple solutions are possible. For example, ask ‘What solutions can you suggest?’ Or ‘What options do we have for solving this problem?’ This increases your ability to influence the direction that the conversation takes.

6. Avoid asking ‘why’

In conflict situations, it can be dangerous to ask ‘why’. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, many people will interpret ‘why’ questions as attacks. They will become defensive and start justifying their positions. And this will prevent them thinking of new ways to resolve the situation.

The second downside of ‘why’ questions is that they can be interpreted as invitations to recount the history of a problem. And this is rarely a constructive thing to do if you want to generate solutions and options.

The third pitfall of asking ‘why’ questions is that it can lead to distorted analysis of others’ motivations. This tends to happen when you ask ‘why’ in situations of workplace conflict. For example, if you ask ‘Why do you think your difficult boss is so controlling?’ you’re inviting the speaker to invent a story about what motivates their boss. And since they’re in conflict, it is highly unlikely they will come up a with an unbiased explanation. So you’re better off leaving that question unasked.

When you’re using the solution-focused approach, it is usually best to avoid probing into peoples’ motivations or the ’causes’ of problems. If you really do need to gather this sort of information, keep this part of the conversation brief. And use ‘what’ to start your question instead of ‘why’. For example:

  • What makes you say that?
  • What do you believe caused this problem?
  • What led to this situation?
  • What are the main contributors to this situation?

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