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Uncovering interests

The interests can be difficult for parties to share, yet are key for solving disputes. Facilitators can use different methods to find out what the needs, wishes and fears are.

What challenges does it focus on?

Needs, wishes and fears are at the root of disputes. The purpose is to look for them.

Short summary

Facilitators use the following processes to find out the interests of the parties:

  • Allow each party to tell their own version of events. In their story there will be emotions. There will be other indications of what they need, wish or would like to avoid. The facilitator can be keen on these and address these.
  • Summarize what you heard. "So .... happened and you wish/need ....? " "Did I understand you correctly that...?" This checks your understanding of what they meant. This ensures that both you and the parties know what is understood.
  • Rephrase answers into interests. So if an answer is “And then he started calling me names.” You can rephrase it as “He started calling you names and you want to be treated respectfully?”
  • Persevere: Keep asking questions until you know what all parties see as the causes of the problem and interests in the dispute.
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 Ans also:

  • Make sure your questions are clear and understandable.
  • Keep an overview of the information in the dispute map.
  • To keep records you can also use Dispute Clarification Form.
  • Ask open questions.

Sometime it is difficult getting at the interests in a meeting with all the parties. Then you can use some other approaches:

  • Shuttle mediation: Have separate meetings with each party in turn. Explain what has happened in each meeting to each party.
  • Carry out some fact-finding activities.
  • Involve a third party who may be able to help.

Research evidence

 Evidence from practice

Asking open questions: facilitators in all countries ask open questions to uncover the problem. Facilitators in Cambodia have good experience with asking open questions. Gradual introduction: lawyers for Praxis in Azerbaijan ease into questions about interests by asking relaxing/welcoming questions that are not likely to be points of argument. They then build up to the needs and interests at the heart of the dispute. Making a map; Facilitators in Egypt reported to make a map of the problem to make sure that they have complete picture. Mediators from KBH create a map of the problem as the first step in the mediation process. This map includes all the relationships and events that have occurred in the dispute.


Evidence from handbooks

Asking good questions:
To elicit information and goals:

  • “Why are we here today?
  • “What happened?” “And then?”

To clarify:

  • “Can you explain further?
  • “Are you saying that…?”
  • “Is that what you meant?”
  • “What I hear you saying is…”

To identify interests:

  • “What are you most concerned about?”
  • What would you like to accomplish?”
  • To move past positions to the “real” interests: “Why is that important to you?”
  • “How does this solve the issue?”
  • “Why is that fair?”

To challenge assumptions:

  • “Why do you think he/she did that?”
  • “Have you asked him/her why he/she did that?
  • “Could there be another reason?”

To help parties generate options:

  • “How do you see this dispute being resolved?”
  • “Can you think of some ways we can address this issue?
  • “What can alleviate your concern about…?”

To establish objective valuation:

  • “How did you arrive at that number?”
  • “How could you and I explain that amount to the other party?”
  • To give parties a reality check: “How do you think the other party will react?”
  • “What do you think will happen when…?”
  • “Are you certain the judge will rule in your favor?”

To emphasize the benefits of agreement:

  • “What do you stand to gain from reaching an agreement?”
  • “How would you feel if you could walk away with an agreement?”
  • Mediation handbook UNDP Cambodia, 2010 (download here)


Evidence from literature

Sometimes, simply being allowed to tell their story completely is a great help to individuals. Pennebaker noted: 'The disclosure process itself...may be as important as any feedback the client receives'
Pennebaker, J.W. (1995) Emotion, Disclosure, and health: An Overview. In Egan, G. (2007) The Skilled Helper. Brooks/Cole:Belmont, CA

Accessing interests, and clarifying the dispute can avoid the most common contributors to the breakdown and failures in negotiation (failures and distortions in perceptions, cognition and communications)
Lewicki, R.J., Saunders, D.M., & Barry, B. (2003) 'Negotiation' New York: McGraw-Hill p.175

There are different styles of listening to people. Egan illustrates many of these in his book 'The skilled helper', but the two highlighted as most useful are:
Empathic Listening: Listening to clients' stories and their search for solutions
Focused listening: Experiences, thoughts, behaviours and affect.
Egan, G. (2007) The Skilled Helper. Brooks/Cole; Belmont CA
Asking open questions
The 7 powers of questions; Secrets to successful communication in life and at work' Bonenkamp, H.J., Brenninkmeijer, A.F.M. (2001) Handboek mediation Leeds, D. (2000) Barendrecht, M and Kamminga, P. (2004) Effectief conflict oplossen

Best practices