When we’re stuck in conflict, sometimes it’s the questions we’re asking ourselves or our sparring partner. To ask better questions in conflict, try this surprisingly useful trick.
Evolutionary biologist David Carrier was stuck. The jackrabbit he was dissecting just wasn’t making sense.
Instead of what he expected to see, he was seeing the belly muscles connected to an apparatus that acted like a Slinky — it compressed when he pushed his finger on it, then sprang back out. What the heck were those things, anyway?
He pondered how rabbits run and how other fast mammals run. Cheetahs. Mountain lions. He considered how jackrabbits have a problem those higher on the food chain or better built for fighting don’t have: Once targeted as dinner, they’re best hope lies in their ability to run. Fast.
So maybe the Slinkies were related to speed. He asked himself, “What makes it fast?” As he ticked off the biological components, he could see he was approaching a dead end. Figuring out how jackrabbits and other fast mammals were alike wasn’t helping him understand the Slinkies.
Then he tried a trick he’d learned from his professor, Dr. Dennis Bramble: When you can’t answer the question, flip it.
Carrier asked himself, “What makes it slow down?” Now he was getting somewhere. Oxygen.
Here’s where this new line of thought brought him, as described in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run:
…For a jackrabbit to stay one hop ahead of those snapping jaws, it would need a little more air than the big mammal on its tail. David had a vision of a Victorian flying machine, one of those wacky but plausible contraptions rigged with pistons and steam valves and endless mazes of wheezing levers. Levers! Those Slinkies were beginning to make sense. They had to be levers that turbocharged the rabbit’s lungs, pumping them in and out like a fireplace bellows.
David ran the numbers to see if his theory held up and … bingo! There it was, as elegant and niftily balanced as an Aesop’s fable: Jackrabbits can hit forty-five miles per hour, but due to the extra energy needed to operate the levers (among other things), they can only sustain it for a half mile. Cougars, coyotes, and foxes, on the other hand, can go a lot farther but top out at forty miles per. The Slinkies balance the game, giving the otherwise defenseless jackrabbits exactly forty-five seconds to either live or die.
If you’ve been reading my articles for any length of time, you know I just love sharing ways we can get our minds to approach stuck problems in fresh ways. I think of this as one of the most important jobs of a conflict resolver.
Dr. Bramble’s question-flipping trick is one of those creative ways. Over the past few months I’ve jotted down real examples of the results when I flipped a mediation or coaching client’s question, á la Bramble. Let me share a few of my favorites with you:
Original question: What is wrong with him that he gets so angry?
Flipped question: What is right with him that he gets so angry?
This one was an absolute show-stopper. The “what’s wrong with him” path was a dead end — after all, even with a long list of possibilities, was she likely to get him to change? But the “what’s right with him” path opened up the possibility that his anger might not be caused by any kind of broken-ness at all. That, in turn, led to a conversation about other possibilities worth pursuing.
Original question: What would make her see it my way?
Flipped question: What would make me see it her way?
We ask ourselves a version of the original question all the time in conflict, right? Then we experiment and experiment with getting them to see the (our) light. But what when we hold ourselves to the same standard we ask of them? That’s the stuff of new clarity, my friends.
Original question: Why won’t you listen to me?
Flipped question: Why would you listen to me?
Ok, true confession time: I flipped this one on myself. My sweet husband was. Not. Listening. I noticed my mind whining, Why the hell won’t you just listen? I made myself flip it. I hated the flipped question, but I could not avoid the smack in the face it gave me. Well why on earth, Good Tammy said with a vaguely Southern accent, would he listen to anyone who sounds like you sound right now, dear? Bad Tammy flinched. And there I had my answer to both questions. Good Tammy smiled serenely.
Don’t only try to ask better questions. Force your mind out of its pattern entirely: When you can’t answer the question, flip it. When you can answer the question but all your answers lead to dead ends, flip it.