Why did you do it that way? Why did you talk to her before talking to me? Why did you promise the customer that we would get it to them? Why didn’t you do a better job? Why is your nose so big? Why? Why? Why?

Annoyed yet? And I’m not even your teammate…or worse, your boss.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the word why.  I use it for myself all the time. Why did that person react negatively to that comment? Why is the team leader not participating in the discussion? Why did I push just a little too hard on that sensitive issue?  I use why to try to understand more fully and to push myself to higher levels of performance. But I keep why for my inside voice.

When I really want to know what’s going on in someone’s head, I avoid “why” at all costs.

It turns out that when someone asks us a question starting with “why,” it triggers the part of our brain that wants to explain and rationalize. When we ask someone to tell us why they did something, they immediately look to justify their actions with a believable story.

Rather than sparking the open dialogue we’re looking for, “why” locks us the person into their position. It also triggers very basic patterns from childhood. We hear the word “why” and it’s like we’ve just been caught red-handed with a crayon on the dining room wall and someone’s yelling, “WHY DID YOU DO THAT!?!”

If you want to understand why your teammate did something, you just need to get there a little differently. If you use “what” or “how” questions, you’re more likely to get insight and less likely to get resistance. “What led you to that conclusion?” “Who did you take into consideration in that process?” “How did you arrive at that answer?” If you’re really worried about peppering your teammate with questions, you can use the safest version of all, “Tell me about your decision to abandon that project.”

That way, your curiosity sparks curiosity in the person you’re asking.  “hmmm…what WAS I paying attention to when I made that recommendation?”

If you really want to know why someone did something, don’t ask why. Use other questions that make them reflect, not rationalize.

10 handy dandy alternatives to why questions…

  1. Tell my how you approached that decision…
  2. Share your approach as you arrived at that recommendation…
  3. What was going on for you?
  4. How did you arrive at that answer?
  5. What was behind your decision?
  6. How did you experience that?
  7. What else should I know about?
  8. Who did you consider in your decision?
  9. Walk me through your thought process…
  10. Help me understand…

Further Reading

You Get the Team you Deserve

4 Ways to Stimulate Better Discussions

The 1 Thing you can do to Improve Communication Today

3 Responses to Here is why you should stop asking why

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Liane. I’ve been working for years to help teams and team leaders break free from the defensiveness-inducing use of “Why?” A favorite reframing to get people to consider systemic (as well as personal) constraints includes: “What got in your way?” Or, “What prevented you from doing something else?” Powerful learning and growth becomes a possibility when we invite colleagues to open up and share their thinking. And then really listen to what they say, allowing we may be changed by it. It’s one of the best ways I know to create something that didn’t exist before.

  2. Elaine Lindsay

    Excellent suggestions Liane. Instead of raising people’s defense modes, you are advising on ways that you can effectively and successfully continue conversations.

  3. Tammy

    I also think it’s a good idea for us to stop asking ourselves ‘why’ even inside our own heads. Not only is it good practice for what comes out verbally, it helps us develop empathy. E.g. what may be causing that team leader not to be participating in Liane’s example.

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