To move forward, Don’t ask Why, Ask What instead

I have been asking myself a lot of “why” questions recently as I have a couple of friends facing some tough times.  The first thought that comes to mind is “Why did it happen to her?”  “Why should someone who did nothing wrong have to suffer?”  The “why” question does not bring about any answer that helped me to further understand the situation or even to help me figure out the next steps.  It just presented more questions and with more questions, more confusion and less clarity.  All leading to no clear action plan to move forward.  All leading to a lot of inner reflections around my underlying beliefs but not in any concrete way to help the person move forward.

The “what” question on the other hand helped me to see the situation in a different light.  I started to ask myself “What can I do to practically help her?”  “What is my role as a friend?”.  The “what” question starts a chain of thoughts that opens up possibilities and alternatives.  That’s powerful as the need to know what to do is critical in our quest to move forward even if it’s a baby step forward.

Think about how you are currently starting a conversation whether its a review, feedback session or everyday conversation.  Do you start with “Why”?  If you were to turn your “why” to “what” what would that sound like?:

  • During a review instead of asking “Why did you do that?” to “What did you learn from taking that action?”
  • When faced with a mistake, instead of “Why did I make that silly mistake?” to “What can I do to stop making silly mistakes?”
  • During a feedback session, instead of asking “Why are you not able to lead the team?” to “What do you think needs to improve in managing your team?”

As with the examples above, the why question is important as it’s a reflective but it’s a cyclical question.  It has the power to help uncover our underlying beliefs.  Underlying beliefs that determines our thoughts and actions.  However, because of its cyclical nature, it brings about more questions and in the workplace context, there is not enough time or expertise to unpack.  The why question also will put people in a defensive position as its intrusive and judgemental.  In most situation, instead of starting with the why question, try out the what question.  Once we have established a non-threatening platform for the discussion, the why question can be powerful to unpack more insights.  I have personally experienced very different responses and the conversation usually leading to many options and actions.

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