Open vs Closed Conversations: The Magical Power of Asking “What?”

Two views of the same, very simple, conversation:

Conversation One

Team lead: we missed the deadline on Monday night.

Boss: why? 

Team lead (defensive): we had some issues with the offshore team

Boss: are they fixed now?

Team lead (defensive): almost

Boss: almost?  why aren’t they fixed today?

Conversation Two

Team lead: we missed the deadline on Monday night.

Boss: what do you think caused that to happen?

Team lead (explaining): we had some issues with the offshore team.

Boss: tell me more about that.

Team lead (explaining): the offshore team lost a key engineer at the end of last week and are scrambling to catch up.

Boss: OK.  what are your options to compensate?

Team lead (now confident):  we have a contractor here that I’ve worked with before who can pick up the slack by the end of the week.

The Two Conversations

Despite being short, and having the same beginning, the two conversations are very different:

Conversation OneConversation Two
Convergent. Asking Why?  Driving to analysis and a single conclusion. Divergent. open to possibilities and explanation.  What?
Confrontative. Why?  Asks for a single conclusion and an “answer”.  If there is no “answer”, the lead is in the wrong. Consultative. What? Asks for opinions, trusts the lead has as useful point of view.
Closed.  The conversation goes one way: towards the why and the fix.Open. The conversation allows options and courses of action.
Directive.  The sense is “fix it”.Coaching. allowing the lead to consider his/her strengths in dealing with the issue.
Uninformative. The boss is heading towards not knowing what’s going on.Informative.  Within a short space of time, the boss knows what’s going on.
Scary.  The lead is definitely in the firing line.Supportive.  The lead is responsible for the issue, but is being lead to trust he/her own capabilities

Divergent, Open Conversations: The Magical Power of “What?”

Starting your questions with “What?” is something of a magic trick (it’s Coaching 101).  It almost always forces you to ask a question which widens the conversation, engages the other person as a partner, and leads the conversation into discovery.

Consider the difference between asking “Why did you do that?” vs “What were the reasons you considered before you did that?”.   They are almost the same question, but the effect on the conversation will be dramatic.  Asking “What…” allows the other person to start describing their thought process, to open up to you, to be a little vulnerable and honest.

Asking “why” almost always starts the defensive business of story telling, of shielding. 

Divergence conversations build relationship, allow discovery and trust.  A conversation that goes to “why” will go to a tennis match of explanations and further interrogation.

Consciously Choosing The Type of Conversation

Divergent, open conversations when: you are coaching, establishing and building relationships, creating consensus, growing a culture of inclusion.  If you are leading a group, most of your conversations will  ideally be divergent and open.

Yes, they take a little longer, and need practice to make them efficient, but over time you will be a much more inclusive, trusted leader as a result.

Convergent, closed conversations when: you want to get an analysis completely clear, figuring out a technical issue, forcing clarity of thinking, making a point of executional excellence.

Convergent conversations are sharp tools – they get the job done, but they need to be used carefully, sparingly and for the right reasons.


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