Going Beyond “Why”

What is your first response when someone asks, “Why did you do (or not do) ________________?

Do you defend your actions or pull away from the person? Most of us do.

When I have asked a why question, many times the response has come from a defensive perspective. For example, I asked my son why his math assignment was not completed. His immediate response was a scowl and defensive attitude as he stated he was working on his science homework. My son’s demeanor changed due to the “why” question I asked him. As a coach, I immediately realized I should have asked a more appropriate question that encouraged open communication such as “What caused you not to have your math assignment completed by now?” By eliminating “why” in the question, my son would not have perceived me as being judgmental and would have openly shared his reasons for his science homework taking so long, which caused a delay in his math homework. As a result, the lines of communication would have been open for additional understanding, problem-solving, and future actions.

I recently attended an ICF chapter meeting and the speaker presented on powerful questions. The speaker emphasized the impact of “why” questions. As I learned in coaching school and through personal experiences, the speaker reinforced that “why” questions come from judgment, promote defensiveness, create separation, and focus on explaining rationale. “Why” questions simply do not contribute to effective conversations.

Effective communication leads to growth, progress, and partnerships. Reframing “why” questions into “what,” “how,” or “when” questions leads to open and productive communication. It is important to be aware of the impact of “why” questions, which can move a conversation backward creating separation.

Pay attention how often you start with a “why” question and the impact it makes.


9 thoughts on “Going Beyond “Why”

  1. Great post Terry. I found an example coming into my head of a yearly performance conversation. Imagine if we went into with the question “Why did you not complete X, Y, or Z?” the conversation naturally becomes a cross examination because an explanation is needed. If you start the conversation with “What were the biggest challenges you feel you faced this year?” it becomes an exercise in exploration. The space becomes something that allows a person to reflect and share vs defend.

    I also find this tying back to the recently published Blanchard/Training Mag study – with the job factor of autonomy being the second most important one. I see why questions being an attack on autonomy. Made me think this morning – nice post. 🙂

  2. There is a lesson to be learned in both asking and answering I think. When you ask, think about your intent and how the question will be perceived… a why question can be quite effective but it can also set someone off with a defensive posture unintentionally. As a question receiver, can you receive a “why” question without the prerequisite negative connotation… can you reply with out being defensive … without bias? That’s a pretty good challenge as well…

    Sometimes, you need to see the question behind the question and help (whether the receiver or giver) the other person(s) reach their ultimate question more effectively.

    Or maybe I’m just a little crazy…

    • Great point! There is responsibility on the sender and receiver of the message. I also like “What is the question behind the question?” The skill is asking a question directly that does not cause the receiver to become defensive.

  3. Interesting idea! However, rephrasing a why question as “what caused you to..?” or “what is the reason…?” might not be enough, as the listener might still interpret it as “why…?” and might even see you as being too wordy or even insincere.

  4. I find that it often helps to remove the assumption from the question. Your question to your son assumed that he had not completed his math assignment. Whether you had that knowledge or not, you might have asked “Did you complete your math assignment?” This omits any assumptions and merely asks a simple yes/no question. If the answer is no, the responder knows that a followup question is coming and can prepare for it.

    Instead of following up with “Why not?”, one could ask something like “Were you working on something else?”.

    The point is to start the conversation with simple questions (‘why’ questions are often complex). Once the conversation gets moving, introduce more complex questions including the ‘whys’.

    • Great point! I agree – it is about removing your assumptions and judgments from the question and truly come from a curious place. Vin, as you stated, if the answer is no, regarding my son’s example, I could then explore deeper with “what” questions.

  5. As a father, I am reminded daily of the challenge to take that emotion in the moment that drivss the WHY statement being the first thing to roll out of your mouth. I like your comments Vin around holding the Why question for later when some sort of dialogue has already been established. Then our intentions(question behind the question) are already understood and demonstrated, so the Why question can be taken as Glen mentioned.

    I also have to remind myself that “What were you thinking?” does not count as a What question. 🙂

  6. Very nice article, thank you.

    From my point of view, a why questions is very powerful because it gives you al lot of information. However, I never use them on the person, always on the content. So from my experience I would say: use them – because they are powerful – but only in the right context, with the right tone of voice and, last but not least, with the right intention! People feel your intention.

    Enjoy your day, Manon

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