From the time we’re children, we seem hardwired to ask the question “Why?”
Just hang out with a preschooler for an afternoon and you’re likely to hear everything from “Why do I have to use a fork?” to “Why isn’t Christmas in July?” and a hundred other “why” questions that’ll more than likely wear you out so much that you’ll stop answering them completely.
As we get older, we may not ask the number of silly “why” questions that a preschooler asks, but that doesn’t mean we stop doing it. In fact, we often use this word hundreds of times a day—not just in our conversations with others, but in our own self-talk as well.
When we try to be introspective, we tend to ask ourselves, “Why did you act that way? Why are your feelings so hurt right now? Why didn’t you think before you blurted out that tactless statement?”
So what’s so bad with “why?”
To begin with, it often elicits a very unhelpful answer: I don’t know.
In fact, that’s probably the most common answer to the “why” question– and introspection or communication often dies after those three words are uttered. Additionally, “why” can sometimes come across as judgmental and can cause the person being asked why (including when we ask it of ourselves) to shut down or feel the need to become defensive.
So what would be a more helpful question?
Practice Asking Ourselves This Instead
Believe me, I’m all about introspection and figuring out our emotional reactions, biases, and unhealthy beliefs. However, when we ask ourselves questions like “Why does this bother me so much?”, it shuts down the thinking side of our brain.
We react with emotion and often that emotion’s negative. Instead of saying, “Why does this bother me so much?” consider asking “What about this bothers me so much?” This engages the analytical part of our mind that can then pick apart the situation and actually deliver some helpful answers.
Practice Asking Employees This Instead
As leaders, we often ask our employees why they did certain things (usually it’s when we feel they screwed up).
We convince ourselves we’re being good leaders by asking them (instead of just blaming them) but “Why did you do that?” is rarely a helpful question. More than likely, you’ll be met with defensiveness or the frustrating “I don’t know.”
Instead, try asking “What was motivating your decision to go that route?”
This is a far less accusatory question and will make your employee think through their thought process that led to that particular decision. It may even lead to you learning something new as a leader!
At the very least, it preserves your employee’s dignity and your relationship with them, which is highly valuable on its own.
The next time you find yourself asking yourself or someone you work with “why,” put some more thought into what you’re truly trying to discover with the question. Then rephrase it by using a more open question that bypasses emotion and leads to an answer that can enhance your learning and deepen your relationships.
Trish Cody has over 20 years of experience consulting with some of the world’s top Fortune 500 Companies. Today, as an ICF and iPEC Certified Coach and Energy Leadership Master Practitioner, Trish works with clients to uncover their core values and beliefs, clearly see how they are showing up in their behaviors and impacting their success, and to shift their thinking to naturally attract positivity and success. For more information, visit www.TrishCody.com.