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Find it tricky to resolve conflict as a leader? Might you be asking the wrong questions?

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

Imagine that you have to resolve a conflict between people in two departments and have set up a meeting to achieve this. On the day the group agrees on both what they want to achieve and also the meeting guidelines: “Everyone will be honest”, being one of them. 

The first question you put to them might be, “Why do you think the collaboration between the departments is not working well?”, or “What are the issues between the two departments?” 

Whichever the question, people give you honest answers! Some ‘unhelpful’ comments arise; participants become defensive; arguments start. Finally, a participant jumps up and says very forcefully, “I can’t stand any more of this!” He stomps out of the room. You feel so bad about what has happened; you want to join him.

Fortunately, the group works through the rest of the day and achieves some useful outcomes; though thinking back on that original question, the safety warning on a box of fireworks might come to mind, “Light the blue touch paper and retire to a safe distance!”

This situation happened to me some years ago, before I learned a different way to approach such issues. You can call the questions I mentioned ‘Problem Focus’ questions. Let’s be clear, Problem Focus (PF) questions are a good way to resolve what Rittel calls, ‘Tame’ problems. Tame problems have a limited amount of uncertainty so you can, e.g. analyse the situation, ask five “whys”, understand it intimately, discuss it, find the cause, suggest a solution and fix it. It works and has worked for thousands of years. It is a good discipline that has led to many outstanding developments for humanity. Yet, it is not flawless; it does not always work, particularly with what Rittel calls, ‘Wicked” problems, or what I refer to here, ‘Messy’ problems.

When tackling such issues, there may be many interrelated problems linked to the differing values and perceptions of people who perhaps have personal motives for their interest. The cause, if there is one, is subjective, people have different views on it; this subjectivity explains the issues that arose with the group I described above. 

If you have people analyse a messy challenge in a Problem Focus way, it can be unhelpful, e.g.

  • Interpersonal conflict can arise as groups debate the “causes”, particularly if people attribute the “cause” to individual areas of responsibility, e.g. ‘It’s the Engineering pipeline, it holds us up!’ ‘It’s the Product Development roadmap; it’s fantasy!”
  • People can become demotivated by all the problem talk – “I can’t stand any more of this!”
  • To spend time debating the issues and root causes can be fruitless and demoralising, reducing the time available to discuss solutions. Whose interpretation of the cause is correct? Who is right or wrong? 
  • The solution may not be related to the cause

How a different type of question might help in the right context

Back now to the story of conflict. What alternative opening question might you use with the two departments mentioned? Here are some ideas:

After understanding what individuals would like to achieve from the collaboration, and what benefits this would give them at work, you might ask one of the following:

  • “What small signs have you noticed that the two departments can collaborate well?” 
  • “Think of a successful product where the two departments collaborated well. What was it, and what did the people in the departments do that helped collaboration?” 
  • “In your departmental teams, create a list of positive aspects that you have noticed in your colleagues from the other department. What do they do well, what good qualities do they have?” 

You can substitute any number of these questions. What do you notice about them? You might sense that they:

  • Assume that the people can collaborate well or that department members can see positive aspects of the other department.
  • Lead people to think in a constructive way about the relationship.
  • Begin to create respect for each other.
  • Can help positively influence those who are more cynical, through the productive discussion of the answers, just as unproductive talk can impact negatively those who are more optimistic.
  • Have people create a dialogue in which everybody wins rather than a debate in which some might lose.
  • You needn’t ask that one perfect question; you can simply ask questions that lead to a constructive outcome. 

My colleagues and I call these type of questions Solution Focus (SF) questions. The beauty of SF questions is that, occasionally, you may use one that does not get the response you hoped for, but it is unlikely you will ask one that has a negative outcome. 


You may ask at this point, ‘But what if someone responds, “Nothing works”, or “I don’t see any good qualities in the other department,” or they snort derisively?’ 

Your concern is understandable; however, this rarely happens. You can reduce the risk if you build trust and openness when you begin the meeting. And if it did happen, you might:

  • Ask, “What enables these two departments (e.g. Engineering and Product Development) to collaborate well in other organisations?” When they have answered, you might ask, “When have you noticed signs of this in this collaboration?” “Even once?” When they have responded, you might ask, “What else?”
  • Bring it right up to the recent past and ask, “What signs have you seen so far in this meeting that you can collaborate well?” 
  • Say, “I believe you can collaborate well and that you can find evidence of this, no matter how small. Let’s begin the session and look for it.” You trust that the group will find evidence, and they usually do. 

All of these questions and more are valid. There is no ‘right’ question. These Solution Focus questions lead people to a different ‘mental place’ from Problem Focused questions. Let me explain that with the metaphor of the Solution Focus Compass. 

The Solution Focus Compass

The metaphorical SF Compass guides you to ask appropriate questions that enable collaborators to tackle messy challenges and enhance communication. 

On two axes, it allows you to visualise how your use of question type can lead people’s thinking and influence their conversation. SF questions often lead to dialogue and increase the creative energy to resolve a complex issue. In contrast, PF questions lead people to argue and defend their position through discussion, reducing the energy they need to fix the problem.

The Axes

  • Horizontal – a ‘timeline continuum’. The questions you ask move people to reflect on the past or the future. 
  • Vertical – an ‘energy continuum’. The type of questions you ask can energise and de-energise people. It is vital to tackle messy challenges with Solution Focus questions; so that energy rises. Energy may increase when using PF questions, but fall once people realise they are not finding sustainable solutions, or when conflict arises

The Quadrants

Each quadrant has a verb. This verb indicates where you might lead people with your questions. SF questions about the future have them imagine an ideal future; about the past, it leads them to resource what can help them progress towards the ideal future. PF questions can lead them to dread the future, 
justify and defend the past, or blame others. 

You can use the example questions below in the same conflict context. Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 4 are SF and PF versions respectively, as are Q2 & 3. 

Which questions might be more helpful to resolve conflict and achieve a win-win for all? 

Quadrant 2 ~ Resource

Quadrant 1 ~ Imagine
1. You are achieving some milestones. What is 
happening differently there?
2. Think of a successful project on which you 
worked. How did the two teams accomplish 
3. Other departments collaborated well. What do 
you notice about their collaboration?

1. What are your best hopes to make this 
collaboration successful? What benefits would 
that bring? 
2. Imagine it is six months from now, and the 
partnership is successful. What might the 
leadership notice? 
3. How might you motivate people to 

Quadrant 3 ~ Justify

Quadrant 4 ~ Dread
1. Why is this collaboration failing to meet 
2. Why did other projects you worked on 
together fail? What can you learn from that?
3. Other departments collaborate well. Why do 
these departments not collaborate well?

1. What are your biggest concerns about this 
collaboration? What might happen if the team 
does not address them?
2. Imagine it is six months from now, and the 
conflict continues. What might the leadership 
3. What obstacles might prevent successful 


In Conclusion

If you have no issue with resolving conflicts with PF questions, keep asking them! If you, like Edward Bear, are ‘bumping your head’, know that there is another way - add Solution Focus questions to your repertoire. Such questions will expand your capabilities as a leader in conflict resolution and many other areas, such as change management and communication

© John Brooker 2021

John Brooker

Author | John Brooker

John is an OU MBA and tutored for 14 years on the MBA Creativity and Innovation course. He leads collaborations for organisations internationally.


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