As you read these questions, what emotions arise in you?

  • Why are you always late for staff meetings?
  • Why are your monthly reports coming back with client complaints?
  • Why do you avoid helping me with the dishes?
  • Why do you wear that dirty old shirt every weekend?

Just writing these questions stirs up a lot of defensive energy in us. “Why” questions can often have blame and guilt embedded in-between the lines.

When Donna was taking professional coaching classes fifteen years ago, her mentor coach said, “Asking ‘why’ isn’t very useful.” Donna doesn’t remember what conversation sparked that comment, yet her coach’s simple statement has stayed with her all these years. She didn’t really understand the wisdom of the statement at the time.

Most likely her coach made that statement in response to Donna’s self-reflection questions that started with “why” questions like:

  • Why don’t I know how to do this?
  • Why do I feel I am not enough?
  • Why don’t I have more money?

You probably have your own personal “why” questions you can add to that list. Deeply-rooted in all those questions are 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 seen as a Persecutor in the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT)™. Victim thinking can also be reinforced with “why” questions.   It might sound like: “Why does this always happen to me?” or, “Why don’t I get what I want.”

Our work is about helping people connect in authentic and powerful ways. When in relationships, leading with “why” more often than not puts others on the defensive. We suggest asking “what questions” that encourage self-reflection and ease the struggle that “why” questions can trigger.

Notice the different energy when leading with “what” rather than “why.”

  • What would help support you getting to the staff meetings on time?
  • 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 shirt that you want to wear it every weekend?

With ‘what’ questions, you can still be direct and clear and leave much of the power and insight with the other person. “What” questions help others think through and investigate the circumstances with more depth and increases their motivation to take steps to remedy the situation.

When David was a manager, he would often preface a “what” question with “Help me understand what…” as an authentic way of being open to not seeing the other’s reasons or perspective.

We also know that, in the business world, there are times when “why” questions are useful. The Toyota Motor Company famously uses the “5 Whys” as a way to explore and get to the root causes of problems and solutions. Simon Sinek’s bestselling book, Start with Why, also makes a great case for asking why when clarifying an organization’s core purpose. These questions are more strategic in nature and are focused on organizational issues and opportunities.

In relationships, however, whether at work or at home, “why” can be a trigger for relationship drama. When something is happening that is causing frustration or disappointment, it’s natural to ask why. The need to understand is fundamental.

In your search to understand, drop the “why” and substitute “what” and notice a shift in the other person’s ability to self-reflect.  You have given them the gift to think more deeply and take responsibility for their choices and answers.