“Why didn’t you follow the new report-writing process?”
Camilla froze, unsure what to say.
She wanted to tell Tammy the truth: that she’d found a faulty assumption in the process that she didn’t wish to follow, as a matter of professional integrity. But in the moment, something about Tammy’s tone caused Camilla to shut down.
“My bad,” said Camilla, half-sheepishly. “I’ll remember next time around.”
Perhaps you recognize yourself in this story. We frequently ask “why” – and usually it’s with good intentions. We simply wish to understand what motivated the other person’s action.
But here’s the problem. When someone asks “why,” the person on the receiving end of that question often feels defensive. This can end up derailing the conversation or precluding an honest discussion, like with Camilla.
Here are five reasons why asking “why” questions generally doesn’t lead to an interaction where both people feel connected.
- It puts your colleagues on the defensive
If you ask someone “why,” there’s a natural temptation to give an answer that starts with “because.” People feel the need to defend themselves.
- It doesn’t evoke collaboration
When you ask “why,” the tone of the conversation can quickly become one of “This is my position; I’m sticking to it.” If both sides feel like they’re in the right, they’ll end up butting heads rather than working together.
- It’s backwards-facing
“Why” questions normally require an explanation of what happened at some time in the past. Even if the intent of the question is to prepare better for next time around, it doesn’t lead to much reflection or new awareness about what to do in the future.
- It feels like a “Gotcha!”
Are you asking “why” to point out a mistake or a flaw in the other person’s thinking? Or are you asking to show that you know best? Even if that’s not your intention, a “why” question can sometimes be interpreted in that way.
- We don’t always know why
This reminds me of the exasperation parents sometimes feel when their young children ask “why” over and over. Sometimes, we just don’t know why! A different question might provide deeper insight.
What to do instead
When we explore the impact of “why” questions during a leadership training, it’s like a lightbulb goes off. As soon as people think about it, they have a better understanding of why so many conversations shut down in the past. But what’s the alternative?
Try asking questions that begin with “what” or “how,” instead of “why.” Here are some examples to consider:
- Ask “What was your thought process?” instead of “Why did you do that?”
- Ask “How are you planning to tackle this?” instead of “Why haven’t you started this yet?”
- Ask “What’s going on, everything okay? instead of “Why were you late?”
In the Thoughtfully Fit model, we call this Strength. That’s because you’re consciously choosing what approach you want to take when asking questions to your colleagues, direct reports or clients. Building this type of Strength doesn’t happen overnight. And sometimes it’s a heavy lift. If you want to practice, try the following core workout:
- Pause: The next time you ask a why question at work and the other person freezes up or gets defensive, Pause for a moment.
- Think: How might you be able to reframe your question to ask “what” or “how” instead?
- Act: Ask a new question that will spark a dialogue.
And if someone asks you why you didn’t follow the new report-writing process, remember that an honest conversation will always lead to better long-term results.