By learning from dispute resolution techniques, journalists can develop a new framework for political debates that would challenge those in power to see others' viewpoints, collaborate and come up with solutions
While working on a journalism textbook, I’d come to understand that research from psychology and neuroscience had insights we could use to strengthen our methods. But as for the crown jewel in our toolbox – interviewing – surely we were the masters of that? I’ve had many colleagues and viewers tell me I was a pretty good interviewer, and that is how I saw myself. Until the day I met with a mediator.
I was just curious if he knew anything about asking questions that I didn’t. Boy, did he. Mediators are neutral facilitators who spend their professional lives helping opposing parties to explore a problem and find new options to resolve the dispute. Tired of the predictable haranguing we usually see when politicians collide on the evening news, I wanted to ask him if he had any ideas for how to build a new format for political debates on TV.
The mediator opened a drawer and took out a piece of paper. “Maybe this would interest you?” he said. On the paper was a circle split into four quadrants. Each quadrant represented a way of asking questions – the role you could take on as an interviewer.
The first role is the detective, where you inquire and investigate. You ask who did what, where, when, why and how, and focus on what happened in the past.
The second is the anthropologist. In this role you still ask questions that are past-oriented but they are more circular, meaning they examine several positions. Here are some examples: “What do you think was their motivation to do so?”, “From which point of view could the action he took, make sense?”
The third is the future scientist. In this role you ask questions that look forward. They are still circular in their style of inquiry and their intention is to explore opportunities and expand possibilities. Examples: “What actions could you take going forward that would change the situation?”, “In three months when you’ve solved this challenge and look back, which decisions will have made a difference?”
“I felt my profession was at the doorstep of something with huge potential for our craft”
The fourth is the captain. These questions are future-oriented but linear, such as: “Who needs to do something?”, “How can he or she help you?” and “When will you do it?”
This is the exact moment where I felt my profession was at the doorstep of something with huge potential for our craft, and we had been oblivious for so long. I realised that I mastered only two out of four roles – the detective and the captain, with a little anthropology thrown in – and that’s how most classic news interviews and debates are currently being made.
But could it really be that bad? I searched for more documentation and found footage of a four hour press conference with a former Danish prime minister about his private use of public funds. The press asked 148 questions and of the 134 I could identify within the four roles of inquiry, 59% were the detective, 19.4% were the captain, 18.7% were the anthropologist, and only 3% were the future scientist.
Anecdotal evidence I know, but it supported my hunch that we in journalism miss out on much of the circle when we interview people and those in power. As a consequence we miss out on asking questions that explore new perspectives, solutions and visions, and on triggering actions based on those perspectives.
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For those who think that it’s not a journalist’s job to ask questions like a future scientist, I say think again. An interview containing all four roles of questioning is incredibly powerful. It reveals the problem and the involved parties (the detective), provides reflection on what has happened (the anthropologist), points towards a solution or maps a bigger vision (the future scientist), and commits decision-makers (the captain).
We have a new way on our hands to keep power accountable. We all know that the easiest thing is to disagree and point fingers. Imagine asking those in power to get acquainted with others’ viewpoints, challenging them to find common ground, create unexpected collaborations and act on binding agreements.
Who created this circle of inquiry? I asked the mediator. “It comes from a professor of psychology, Karl Tomm, who specialises in family therapy,” he said.
I’m happy to report that others in my profession can see the potential of this framework. Sweden’s national radio is currently assessing how to use these principles in its upcoming election coverage. In my home country of Denmark, TV2 has also shown interest. We are expecting an election here soon – hopefully with coverage that will actually manage to challenge power anew, get away from the same old mudslinging, and in the end serve the public. Isn’t that what quality journalism is about?