Ask “What” More Than “Why”
As you read the following questions, what emotions arise in you?
- Why are you always late for the staff meetings?
- Why are your monthly reports filled with client complaints?
- Why do you avoid helping me with the dishes?
- Why do you always wear that same old shirt on weekends?
Just writing and reading these questions stirs up some defensive energy. “Why” questions often have blame and guilt embedded in between the lines. As it turns out, questions that begin with why are surprisingly ineffective.
When Donna was first taking professional coaching classes over twenty years ago, her mentor coach said: “Asking ‘why’ isn’t very useful.” Donna didn’t understand the wisdom of the statement at the time and doesn’t remember what conversation sparked that comment, yet her coach’s simple statement has stayed with her all these years.
Most likely her coach made that statement in response to Donna’s self-reflection questions that often started with why. Questions like:
- Why don’t I know how to do this?
- Why do I feel I am not enough?
- Why can’t I stop my reactive habits?
You probably have your own personal “why” questions you can add to that list. Deeply rooted in all those questions is a range of negative emotions from embarrassment to even shame.
If you lead with why when asking other people questions, there is a very good chance you will be perceived as a Persecutor in the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT). Starting with why almost always elicits a defensive response because it implies the need to explain one’s actions or words. The typical answer to why questions usually begins with: “Because…”
The TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)® work is about supporting people to connect in authentic and powerful ways. Instead of asking questions that elicit defensiveness, we encourage you to ask questions that support self-reflection and greater insights.
Reframing the first set of questions from above, notice the different energy that the question evokes when using what rather than why.
- What would help support you to arrive on time for staff meetings?
- What do you feel is behind the customer complaints?
- What is preventing you from helping with the dishes?
- What is so cool about your old shift that you want to wear it every weekend?
Questions that begin with what can still be direct and clear, while leaving much of the power and insight with the other person because they invite people to investigate the situation with more depth. They also increase a willingness to share a new perspective if the defensiveness isn’t present.
When you ask why questions you are inviting more details and justification about the story they are telling to defend themselves. What questions on the other hand, requests people to think more deeply about themselves and the situation.
In the business world, there are times when “why” questions are useful. Many companies use the “5 Whys” to explore and get to the root causes of detailed business situations. Simon Sinek’s, Start With Why, also makes a great case for asking why when clarifying an organization’s core purpose.
In relationships, however, whether at work or at home, why can be a recipe for relationship drama. When something is happening that is causing frustration or disappointment, it’s natural to ask why because we have a strong desire to understand a situation. But when the desire to know becomes a drilling for details, it keeps the conversation focused on what is wrong.
In your search to understand, drop why and substitute what and notice how it shifts the other person’s ability to self-reflect. You have given them the gift to think more deeply by seeing them as a Creator!