Do Rhetorical Questions Diminish a Mediator’s Credibility?

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Limited room for maneuver

By:  Donald L. Swanson

[I]n settings like mediation, rhetorical questions may not be effective as a persuasion device, and under certain circumstances may even be counter-productive.”

–Profs. James Stark & Douglas Frenkel, “Changing Minds: The Work of Meidators and Empirical Studies of Persuasion.” [All information below is from this 2013 article; and see Footnote below.]

The two professors, in the linked article, are analyzing “existing research” on methods a mediator might use to push mediating parties toward settlement.

By “rhetorical questions,” the two professors are referring to questions by a mediator to a party that highlight,

–“legal risks” the mediator sees [an example is, “Aren’t you concerned with how a jury might react” if this evidence is admitted?], and

–“the costs of going forward” [an example is, “Is it really in your interest” to have “investigators coming to your offices, interviewing your staff, and combing through your files?”].

Any mediator who uses rhetorical questions has “lots of company,” according to the professors, because “question-asking” is viewed as “the core technique” of mediators. By contrast, direct statements of evaluation are often viewed as inappropriate.

Unfortunately, however, the professors proceed to question the effectiveness of this “core technique,” based on empirical studies.  Their findings, if accepted, could limit a mediator’s room to maneuver.

Low v. High Involvement

Older research indicates that questions are better than statements at getting people to “think about” or “elaborate” on their arguments. The two professors refer to this as the “elaboration effect.”

Later research suggests, however, that the elaboration effect is limited to “low involvement” subjects (i.e., those who have little interest or stake in the answers).

Mediating parties, by contrast, are highly invested and deeply engaged. Studies suggest, for them, that “a rhetorical question may serve as a distraction that can interfere” with elaboration and “reduce persuasion.” One study, for example, uses exams in school as a study context, and here are some of its findings:

 1.  As to participants with “low involvement in the subject” (i.e., “the exam would be introduced at another school, not theirs”), questions yield good results. Such results, for example, include:

–“positive thoughts when accompanied by strong arguments,” and

–“negative thoughts when accompanied by weak ones.”

 2.  However, as to participants with “high involvement” in the subject (i.e., “the exam would be given to them”), rhetorical questions “distracted them from their argument processing” and “reduced” their levels of elaboration.

A Focus on the “Source”

For mediators, such findings may be surprising. But here’s a further explanation from the two professors.

Rhetorical questions focus attention “on the source of the persuasion” and “undermine persuasive efforts.” One study of shoe advertising finds that participants attuned to “persuasion tactics” view rhetorical questions as “a deviation from their expectations” and do not like the questioning. Participants in the study prefer “the more straightforward or direct approach of using statements.” Here’s why:

–Instead of focusing on answers to the questions, they try to “understand” the deviation “in terms of the advertiser’s motives” — they focus more on the source and on tactics used than on “the message content.”

And when participants view the source of persuasion efforts unfavorably, they view the questioning as inappropriate “pressuring.”

Impact

Another study compares “the impact of rhetorical questions versus statements” on “cognitive elaboration.” The study reaches these conclusions:

(a) fewer arguments are remembered when rhetorical questions (as opposed to direct statements) are used “in high involvement situations” like mediation;

(b) questioners are “perceived as less expert—but no more polite” than those who make direct statements; and

(c) using “a series of rhetorical questions” increases the “perception of pressure,” the “derogation of the source,” and “(most importantly)” a reduction in “message acceptance.”

Risks

The two professors conclude that a mediator’s attempt at “persuasion by narrow, suggestive questioning” is “risky.” Here are some of the risks:

–A party might focus on “the persuader” and his/her “tactics,” rather than on “the message.”

–A “mediator’s rhetorical questions” are often “indirect evaluative efforts” to “overcome” a party’s “overconfidence” by “instilling doubt or even fear.”

–Such “negative” appeals might “by themselves lead” to a “lowered assessment” of the mediator and “lowered odds of persuasion.”

Conclusion

The foregoing is an uncomfortable set of findings and conclusions for many mediators, including yours truly. About the time a consensus seems to exists on the right thing to do, there’s always information calling the consensus into question.

One of my basic assumptions is this: at any given time I’m probably doing something wrong or less-than-optimally. But in many circumstances, I’m genuinely surprised to learn what one of those things might be.

–And this is one of those circumstances.

**  If you find this article of value, please feel free to share.  If you’d like to discuss, let me know.

Footnote: James H. Stark is a Professor of Law and Director of Mediation Clinic at University of Connecticut, and Douglas N. Frenkel is a Professor of Law and Mediation Clinic head at the University of Pennsylvania, collaborated on the research paper discussed above.

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