As you read these 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 old shirt on weekends?

Just writing and reading these questions stirs up some defensive energy. “Why” questions can often have blame and guilt embedded in-between the lines. As it turns out, “why” is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question.

When Donna was first taking professional coaching classes almost twenty 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 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 from the other, 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. We suggest asking “what” questions that encourage self-reflection and ease the struggle that “why” questions can trigger.

In reframing the opening questions above, 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, while leaving much of the power and insight with the other person. “What” questions invites them to investigate the circumstances with more depth and increases their motivation to take steps to remedy the situation—or to share a perspective you were not aware of that makes the situation valid.

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, make people 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. The need to understand is fundamental. When the desire becomes a never-ending quest to know, it will keep the conversation in the past.

In your search to understand, drop the “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 and take responsibility for their choices—and the gift of seeing them as a Creator!

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