Why not to ask “why”
I'm a big fan of Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” TEDTalk and agree that understanding the purpose (both yours and others’) is crucial to success.
Yet when we’re conversing in the course of everyday life, there are definitely situations when the word “why” at the start of a question is not your friend.
“Why” puts people on the defensive. It tends to come across as demanding and confrontational. As in, “why are you late?” and “why did you do that?”
If your intention is to demand, confront and put someone on the back foot, then by all means, “why” away.
When egos are at stake or you want to invite people to engage with you, there are a host of better options.
At the board meeting
My friend Nora (not her real name) is a non-executive director and shared with me her technique for phrasing concerns in a way that produces the best outcome.
When the CFO presented the company’s budget at the board meeting showing a ten-fold increase, Nora’s first thought was, “Why are you showing us this hockey stick projection? You’re never in a month of Sundays going to make that budget!” But how to phrase that in a constructive way?
She chose the following: “How do we know that a ten-fold increase can be achieved?” And a rational discussion ensued. In the end, it became clear to the management team that they needed to go back and review the numbers, but thanks to Nora’s deft questioning skills, everyone maintained their dignity in the process.
My personal favorite is, “What would need to be true in order for us to achieve that budget?”
Or another good way is to ask, “What would it take for that to happen?”
With your mentee
When you’re mentoring someone, a sign of success is that they leave your presence feeling better than when they came in.
So it’s not useful to make them feel bad about themselves even though they may be coming to you for advice on how to extricate themselves from a tricky situation.
Instead of, “Why on earth did you say that to the client?” there’s always, “What were the circumstances that led to this situation?”
And “Why didn't you put yourself forward for that role?” could become “What was your thought process for deciding…”
When you’re at home
This works surprisingly well in my personal life as well – an added bonus (or perhaps the main point?).
When our kids asked permission to go to an event and we weren’t very excited about it, it didn’t work very well to ask, “Why would you want to go to that?” or worse yet, “Why should we let you go?” Not only are those questions hard to answer respectfully, they tend to cause an argument.
Instead, “Can you tell us more about it?” turned out to be a more neutral and successful way to get the information and assurances we wanted.
And on those “rare” occasions when family members are not “falling in line” and doing exactly what I want them to do when I want them to do it, it’s tempting to shout something like, “Why are you being so stubborn?”
Much as it feels satisfying to vent, my personal experience is that no constructive conversation has ever come from a question like that.
Plus, accusing someone else of being stubborn usually means I am appearing just as stubborn from their point of view. It’s a lose-lose situation.
What has worked better for me is to change tack and ask, “What would you prefer to do instead?”
Back to Career Mastery
At the board level, it’s all about the questions you ask, how you phrase them and how well you listen to the answers. But why wait until you’re in that rarified atmosphere to put this to work? You can start getting the benefits right now no matter what your level.
Get to work learning to ask questions in a way that achieves your purpose… and with a minimum of collateral damage. It’s a skill that becomes more valuable the more senior you become.
I’d love to hear how you do with your practice.
And in the meantime, please let us know in the comments below: what are your favorite questions?
You have put the finger on something I have worked hard on in the last two years (and no doubt I will keep doing so). I am detailed and very logical and I don’t like nodding to people to make them feel good. I like to listen and to understand, but I have realized that more often than not my ” why” questions were received defensively. Whilst it never caused a relationship issue, it sometimes created a long and unintended debate.
I have been using two tactics to avoid that:
1) I ask “Let me understand the assumptions you are making” (and slowly go through them one by one). People tend to reach different conclusion often because their starting point is different!
2) If I think that the “path” rather than the “starting point” may be the issue, then i ask “We started from a base case of [x], can you guide me on how we can get to [y]?
Personally I love the “What would it take” suggestion you made. It’s very sharp and I will certainly use it!
Many thanks for sharing your techniques – these are great additions to the toolbox.
This was incredibly helpful! I do a lot of intense capacity building and it can sometimes be frustrating because I have high expectations and see a lot of potential in people. When they make mistakes, my natural reaction is to respond with anger and “why didn’t you..?” This isn’t helpful of course, so as much as possible, I now try to wait at least 24 hours before responding, so I can look at ithe situation with a fresh perspective. What I realized when reading your tip, is that a ‘how’ question would require me to have the patience and calmness to really listen to someone’s response. This would automatically require me to give myself time and space needed before dealing with the issue, or help me learn to respond calmly immediately. So I will definitely try to force myself to use ‘how’ instead of ‘why’ as often as possible.
So glad this may help you in your meaningful work. And I look forward to the time when you will enjoy using “how” rather than forcing yourself to use it!