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 wear that dirty old shirt every week-end?
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 over 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 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)™. “Why” almost always elicits a defensive response from the other because it implies the need to explain one’s actions or words.
Victim thinking can also be reinforced with “why.” It might sound like: “Why does this always happen to me?” or, “Why don’t I get what I want.”
The TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) ™ work is about helping people 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 shift that you want to wear it every week-end?
With “what” questions, you can still be direct and clear, while leaving much of the power and insight with the other person. “What” questions help them investigate the circumstances with more depth and increases their motivation to take steps to remedy the situation.
In the business world, there are times when “why” questions are useful. The Toyota Motor Company famously uses the “5 Whys” to explore and get to the root causes of detailed business situations. The very successful book titled Start With Why also makes a great case for asking why when clarifying an organization’s core purpose.
Other times it is imperative to empower workers to ask “why” and not simply do as they are told (David’s favorite way of approaching this is to say, “Help me understand what is behind your request.”).
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 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 the gift of seeing them as a Creator!