Sometimes it is Best to Not Ask “Why”

August 15, 2013

Martha Germann
Founder, Mindful Games Institute LLC

If you have ever been around a four-year old for any length of time, you will have discovered that their favorite question is ‘why?’ Everything is new to a little kid and they are trying to figure it all out. So they ask “why” to learn how to fit into the world.

“Why do we have eyelashes?”

“Why did that man hold the door for us?”

“Why does Spiderman wear a mask?”

When you start a new job and are trying to figure out the reasons for the way things are set up, “why” again is the question of choice. You want to know the purpose of a process, policy or protocol so you can learn how to fit into the workplace.

“Why do we need to make three copies of this report?”

“Why do the figures need to go to department “A” first?”

“Why are there no snack machines in the building?”

The question “why” comes in handy when we are figuring things out.

However, as we spend more time in our job and our relationships, “why” tends to turn from a question of inquiry to one of confrontation.

“Why do you always do that?”

“Why don’t you listen to me?”

“Why didn’t you finish that project when I asked you?”

It is for this reason that my friend Nadine Bell, who is a communications expert and President of Prismatic Solutions, has trained herself to never ask a “why” question. She has found in her research that when you begin a question with “why”, even if it is a true inquiry, you often get answers that are not all that useful.

Why is this so, you may ask?

“Why” questions are often used to imply that something is wrong. And we tend to automatically go on the defensive when we hear that word. Instead of giving an answer of explanation, we withdraw, justify or ask a counter accusatory question.

“Why did you do that?” May be followed by:

“I don’t know,”

“You just don’t know what I have been through lately.”

“Why are you asking me that? Why don’t you just leave me alone?”

None of these answers provide much value.

And to top it off, the person asking may not even be interested in the real answer anyway.

A boss asking the question “why are you late?” may not really want to know why the employee is late. She is more interested in making sure that the employee knows that the boss knows that the employee is late. What would be more effective is a discussion of expectations and asking the employee what they can do to meet those expectations.

Here are ways to increase the effectiveness of your questions.

  • Think about what you want to accomplish and ask the question that will enable you to achieve that goal.
  • Test the question out by asking yourself first and seeing what answer you would give to see if you will get beneficial information.
  • Be mindful of your body language and voice inflection when you are asking a question to show that you are open to their answer.
  • Ask inquiry questions that don’t have the same confrontational reputation as “why” – what, where, when, who, and how. For example, “What did you want the outcome to be?”, “When you did x, what were you hoping would be the result?”, “How do you think it would be best to proceed?”

If we are aware that the reason we ask a question is to gain information that will help us learn or make decisions that will move us towards our goals, we will be more mindful of the type of questions we ask and how we ask them.

In my next blog, we will uncover the worst “why” question ever and what to ask instead.