Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Conversation vs. Interrogation

Volume: December 2010

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com


Inez is a detail-oriented, deadline-focused leader. She manages a team of six people, and is known for “getting things done.” Inez’s boss, Carol, appreciates her efficiency. She also senses a morale problem in Inez’s department. Carol’s intuition is spot-on, because Inez’s team members are not big fans of her methods. What Carol learned through casual conversations is that Inez asks a lot of questions. Typically, this is a good thing. Inez’s style, however, is to ask the questions in rapid-fire succession, using a terse tone of voice. Inez also begins her questions with one of two words: “Why” or “What.” Her staccato conversations end up sounding something like this:

            “Why did you prepare that….?”

            “What happened next?”

            “Why did they react that way to your request?”

            “What did you do then?”


While Inez’s team members respect her industry knowledge and her accomplishments, they are weary of her one-sided conversations. After conversing with Inez, her team members feel interrogated. In fact, when Inez is not around, they refer to her as Inez the Interrogator.


In an effort to help Inez transform her verbal queries into meaningful conversations, Carol met with her one-on-one. Carol began by quoting Jack Welch, the legendary leader GE, who stated that once someone becomes a leader they begin providing fewer answers and start asking better and better questions. Carol praised Inez for her use of questions to drive conversation. She also mentioned that the structure and tone of voice used during questioning can make a difference between people feeling part of a meaningful exchange of information versus interrogated. Carol’s comments resonated with Inez – several times she had overhead people referring to her as The Interrogator. As she continued, Carol stated that the artful mastery and use of a variety of open-ended questions can serve many purposes. Carol listed just a few of the ways that effectively delivering open-ended questions could assist Inez:     

  • Controlling a conversation without appearing in control
  • Gaining knowledge of the team member’s perspective
  • Learning what may be influencing the team member’s decision-making


Inez nodded as she listened to Carol. She then stated she wanted to learn about how to better structure her questioning. Carol smiled and then listed several words and phrases that can begin meaningful open-ended questions.

  • Describe…….
  • Explain…..
  • How…..
  • Where……
  • Share with me……
  • Tell me about…..
  • Tell me more about…..
  • What……


Carol highlighted that there is nothing wrong with starting a question with the word “what.” She reinforced that starting open-ended questions with a good variety of other words and phrases will make the other person feel part of a sincere conversation, as opposed to feeling picked-clean of information. Inez agreed. Carol continued by asking Inez how others may feel when the word “why” begins a question.

    After a moment Inez said: “I guess it could make them feel defensive.”

    “Exactly,” Carol said. “So if you feel compelled to use the word ‘why,’ bury it in the middle of a question, rather than using it in the beginning.”

    “Makes sense,” said Inez. “Please tell me more about tone of voice.”


Carol stated that tone of voice is difficult to monitor, since we tend to pay little attention to our tone during conversation. She mentioned that our emotions usually control our tone of voice. This struck a chord with Inez, who was usually stressed-out. “That is why my voice is so terse,” Inez said, as if experiencing an epiphany. “Bingo,” said Carol, “Just practice softening your tone. It will take time, but soon you will easily master your tone of voice.”  


Inez immediately embraced Carol’s advice. She started her open-ended questions with a variety of words and phrases. She also concentrated on using more appropriate tones of voice.


Fast forward eleven months. Without the distraction of Inez’s interrogative style, her team members bore witness to Inez’s passion for their success, and her abilities to lead effectively. There was less tension and people were interested in speaking with Inez because they knew they would be engaging in an actual conversation. As the team relaxed, people smiled more, including Inez. Soon, she had a different nickname, Inez the Enlightened – less alliterative, but certainly more complimentary.


Bottom Line: In a stress-filled work-world it is easy to turn into Joe Friday and ask for just the facts. As leaders, we must continually build rapport with team members and promote positive morale. Luckily there are an abundance of ways we can do this. Asking terrific, open-ended questions is one of the foundational ways that leaders show their competence. It uncovers troves of information, while involving people in the discovery.


Until next time my friends, be well. 


Doug Van Dyke is a leadership and collaboration consultant, executive coach, and strategic planner. He is also the author of Leadership Simplified – THE Field Guide for Savvy Leaders.  Doug’s audios and videos are also available atwww.leadershipsimplified.com. To learn more about consulting services, coaching, and training, or to have Doug help your team work together better, contact him today at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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