The Mediator's Toolkit - Author Inteview with Gerry O'Sullivan

by: EJ on 10/15/2018

Author Gerry O'Sullivan has been a mediator, trainer and facilitator for over 30 years.  An advanced member of the Mediator's Institute of Ireland, she has delivered training in Cuba, Palestine and the UK.  Today she responds to our questions about her new book, The Mediator's Toolkit: Formulating and Asking Questions for Successful Outcomes.


1.  What do you recommend as the best way to learn how to use the S Question Model?


The first thing to do is to read Chapter 4 which shows how to minimise any threat a party may feel from the asking of questions. Note: The ‘S Questions Model’ is initially introduced on page 11.

a) S1, S2 and S3 dimensions of the ‘S Questions Model’

Readers who are familiar with asking questions will know about the S1: Subject Matter dimension of the model and the S2: Structure dimension of questions within the model. The chapter dealing with S3: Seeing Information may have new information for a reader about the application of ‘Clean Language’ and metaphor to mediation.

One of the tools that should help you to develop this new skill is to listen to people on TV or radio and try to identify any metaphors they may use, and then pose a ‘Clean Language’ question using that metaphor. You can never go wrong using communications on TV and radio as a tool, and no one can sue you!!


b) S4: Shift Thinking dimensions of the S Questions Model

However, the eight S4: Shift Thinking dimensions of the ‘S Questions Model’ will take a lot more work. You will need to read through the theory and the purpose of each of the eight questions and how they are built. And then practice on unsuspecting family members and friends. Listen to speakers on TV and radio with a view to identifying when they are making Journeys of Inference, or when they are not being clear, or if they appear to display cognitive dissonance etc. This development of awareness is the start of becoming proficient in this skill. Then look at the image of the ‘S Questions Model’ and choose an appropriate question from the model.

The S Questions Model was designed as a one-page reference guide. I always have a copy of it in my bag so I can take a little peek at now and again during a mediation. It can give me inspiration if I am feeling a little stuck. And I use it to prepare for joint meetings.


2. Why is the initial private meeting with each party in mediation important?

Chapter 3: ‘Working with the Brain in Mediation’ illustrates clearly the physiological reaction a person may have if they are feeling any sense of threat. This means they may not be able to think cognitively and so we need to be ultra-careful that the questions we ask do not result in a party feeling threatened.

Parties in conflict need to build trust with their mediator prior to being in a room with the other party. Holding an initial separate meeting creates a space for this to happen. To do otherwise heightens the level of threat that parties coming to a joint meeting may feel, and this could be aggravated by a mediator who, because they are working in a vacuum of knowledge about the parties, could inadvertently ask questions that could stimulate an unnecessary avoid- threat reflex in a party.

This initial separate meeting creates a forum where discussion can take place about issues that may be sensitive for a party and that could result in them becoming vulnerable in front of the other party. Some of the deeper and more searching questions that are contained in the S4: Shift Thinking Dimension of questions need to be initially asked at this separate meeting to judge the appropriateness of asking the question at the joint meeting.


3. What process would you recommend for facilitators to use to clarify their own unique paradigms and to identify how this might influence their work?  

I love this question! I do an exercise in class where I ask trainees whether they felt that Roy Keane was justified in walking out on the Irish national soccer team in Saipan, Japan during the 2002 World Cup. Roy left the squad as he felt that the Irish soccer team management had not provided the team with the proper resources for their practice and preparation in Saipan.

Then I work with the trainees to explore what value base or belief system motivated their opinion about Keane’s actions and to peel back the layers until they get to the deep values or beliefs that influence their opinion. 

My next question is to ask: “From where does that value or belief come?”. Their responses usually indicate the values and beliefs they learned in childhood. It’s important to know that whether we agree with what our parents say, or not, we are still influenced to either take on their values, or to fight against them, but either way we are still being influenced.

Samples of responses to questions about the appropriateness of the actions taking by Roy Keane

Stay in Saipan

“You commit to it and you go with it. You never walk away from it. You climb that wall, even if you are wrong.”

Leave Saipan

“‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’– my dad died when I was young and my mother was always saying – go out there and always be prepared for whatever needs to be done and you will be ok … “

Stay in Saipan

“You stand by your team – I wanted the Irish team to do really well – I am Irish and part of Ireland and I feel a connectedness with all that is Irish. This is where I belong, this is my identity. Roy Keane let Ireland down. Roy Keane let me down.”

Leave Saipan

“You are on your own out there, you should never depend on anyone else. Protect yourself and do not put up with any shit from people who are going to let you down. Set your own high standards and live by them. Don’t mind the rest!”

Getting to know your own paradigm

As a start I would suggest you ask yourself what is important to you? Or what are the reasons you love a particular politician, or what are the reasons you want that politician out of office as quickly as possible? What is it that this politician says or does that does matches/ not match your view of how we should live together in this world? Then strip it back more and ask - what values do you share/ not share with this politician? What is that tape-recorder in your head saying to you about this? What are the things you remember being said to you about these values when you were a child? Who said them? Or who ignored this value in your childhood and influenced why you came to have this value?

When you have done that exercise ask yourself to what extent your conclusions inform all your actions, even at an unconscious level? Then you should know a little more about your paradigm than you did at the start of this exercise! When making decisions about the process you will use in mediation or the questions you ask of parties, reflect on how much your paradigm is influencing your process of working with parties and the questions you ask...and challenge it! Ask yourself if it is appropriate for the parties sitting in front of you, or is it all about you?!

Reader Question:

Would this have helped with the Senate Kavanaugh Hearings?

It depends on who the help is requested for!  Asking underlying interest questions requires time, sensitivity and integrity.  Exploring what is beneath a party's position is what will lead to increased understanding for both parties.  There can be powerful forces at play that motivate people to keep these underlying interests well hidden. (editor)





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