Close this search box.
Close this search box.

on neighbour

Guideline for neighbour problems / RESOLVING: 4.1 Asking solution-focused questions

Interventions and evidence explained

Most plausible interventions explained

We identified two intervention for neutral third parties looking to help parties to a neighbour dispute to explore and shape solutions:

  • Asking solution-focused questions
  • Asking problem-focused questions

The first intervention involves formulating questions aimed at helping parties to make suggestions about possible solutions. These questions are referred to as solution-focused questions, which originates from solution-focused brief therapy (Stokoe and Sikveland). The mediator is outcome-focused. The mediator tends to steer the process; through posing solution focused questions, he or she encourages the clients to look ahead to their desired future situation and how they can achieve this outcome. It revolves around the outcome that the clients want to achieve (Bannink, p. 176). Solution-focused mediators will ask “What would you prefer instead of the conflict?”, defined in positive, realistic and concrete terms (Bannink, p. 177). 

Another approach that neutral third parties can take is to formulate problem-focused questions. Problem-focused questions are focused on the history of the conflict (Bannink, p. 175-176). According to the problem-focused model, the parties to a dispute first need to explore and analyse the problem before they can arrive at a solution. Parties describe the problem and then negotiate an agreement that satisfies the needs of all involved. Neutral third parties asking problem-focused questions facilitate negotiation and are focused on the process rather than on outcomes. 

Selected interventions for comparison (defined as a PICO question)

For neutral third parties helping parties to a neighbour dispute explore possible solutions, is asking solution-focused questions or asking problem-focused questions more effective for well-being?

Search strategy

The databases used are: HeinOnline, Westlaw, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, ResearchGate, SSRN.

For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: questions, questioning, mediation, solution-focused, problem-focused, techniques, brief therapy, outcome, process.

Assessment and grading of evidence

The main sources of evidence used for this particular subject are:

Quality of evidence and research gap

According to the research method, we grade the evidence as low. Sources consist of expert opinions, empirical research and randomized controlled trials. Although the strength of evidence is low, current research looks promising and a clear direction for further research has been identified.

Comparing the two interventions

Desirable outcomes of the interventions

Asking problem-focused questions
Asking solution-focused questions
Solution-focused conversations have a positive effect in less time and satisfy the client’s need for autonomy more than problem-focused conversations. The solution-focused model has proved to be applicable in all situations where there is the possibility of a conversation between client and professional (Bannink, p. 174).
Applying solution-focused questions results in increased self-efficacy and other positive effects. [According to a randomized study comparing solution-focused and problem-focused questions in the field of coaching], the solution-focused approach significantly increased positive affect, decreased negative affect and increased self-efficacy. Solution-focused questions generated significantly more action steps to help people to reach their goals (Grant, p. 88).
The solution-focused approach ensures a continuous evaluation of the mediation process. By asking scaling questions throughout the mediation process and by asking at the beginning of each conversation “What is better?”, evaluation of mediation is taking place continuously (Bannink, p. 180). [This could enhance the quality of mediation and perhaps quality of solutions].

Undesirable outcomes of the intervention

Asking problem-focused questions
Asking solution-focused questions
Problem-focused questions can slow down the process of finding a solution. If the problem or conflict and its possible causes are studied, a vicious circle may be created with ever-increasing problems. This atmosphere becomes loaded with problems, bringing with it the danger of losing sight of the solution (Bannink, p. 175).
Applying solution-focused questions may result in solutions that are not owned by the parties in conflict. Clients want mediators to provide solutions and not leave it for them to ‘sort out differences’. The challenge here can be found in formulations and solution-focused, (or rather solution-proposing) questions. Solutions are the work of mediation, but they are not necessarily the work of clients (Stokoe and Sikveland). [In order for mediators to avoid proposing solutions to their clients, they should be careful in phrasing solution-focused questions].
Applying problem-focused questions can result in a negative atmosphere. Conversations about the clients’ positions and a familiarization with the history of the conflict are both deemed not only unnecessary but even undesired, due to their negative influence on the atmosphere during the conversation and the unnecessary prolongation of the mediation (Bannink, p. 176).

Balance of Outcomes

Asking solution-focused questions positively affects the well-being or parties to a neighbour dispute. They require less time and fulfill the parties in their needs to be autonomous. Solution-focused questions also result in more self-efficacy by the parties. Neutral third parties should be careful in formulating these questions however, as it may be too imposing on the parties involved. 

Problem-focused questions on the other hand are not associated with increased well-being. In fact, research suggests that applying problem-focused questions may result in a slower resolution process and a negative atmosphere between parties. 

The desirable outcomes associated with asking solution-focused questions outweigh those of asking problem-solving questions. Therefore, asking solution-focused questions is preferred.


Taking into account the balance of outcomes, the effect on neighbours’ well-being, and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For neutral third parties helping parties to a neighbour dispute explore possible solutions, asking solution-focused questions is more conducive to well-being than asking problem-focused questions.

Table of Contents

3. Recommendations on COMMUNICATING
4.1 Asking solution-focused questions