Why Not Why

3 minute read

An old saying is that the most important question is “why.” In many cases, “why” can help uncover very useful information, leading to root cause discovery processes like the ‘5-Whys’. And, almost every time we ask “why” about a past event, we create resistance to our question by introducing fear of judgment. So when is it important that we don’t ask why, and what do we do instead?

It All Began…

If you were half the bad child I was, you were frequently asked “why did you do that?” Anytime I misbehaved (which was often), some flavor of “why did you…” came my way. My experience taught me that “why” questions were ones that I wanted to avoid and got nervous about. Even as I got older and entered the working world, “why” questions were the ones I was least comfortable with. “Why” brings a strong sense of judgment to the exchange, and no one likes to feel judged. Especially if we know we screwed up, or think we might have. How comfortable would you be if your manager called you to her office and the first words she said were “why did you…?”

Alternate Options

If we look at the value of a “why” question, it’s that it can uncover the reasoning or motives someone had. As a kid, that often felt like defending a bad decision…I wasn’t often asked “why” I made a good choice. Here’s the great part: we can get to the same outcome by using a number of different questions narrowing in on what we really want to know, and avoid the defensiveness that ”why” tends to bring with it.

If you’re about to ask a “why” question and want to experiment with using something else, here are some options for you:

Each of these asks a different question that helps us and our teammate approach the conversation from a tighter angle. This reduces the desire to defend/rationalize/explain, and instead focuses on one part of how people make decisions. We also get to learn something really valuable in this different kind of exchange. We explore someone’s thought process, the information they keyed into, the experience they’ve had, or what they were expecting. Now we’re having a different conversation with someone, and they’re less likely to want to defend themselves since we aren’t attacking.

We’re intentionally creating a different conversation with the outcome of understanding them and their experiences. For the leader, this provides better visibility for where to coach with a light touch. When someone has screwed something up, they may already feel some internal pressure. With a different approach to the conversation, the pressure is lower, the desire to defend is toned down, and everyone can learn more from the experience.