We are told that to open up conversations we should use open questions – ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. The question is, do ‘why’ questions belong in the same category and are they as useful as the others? Are ‘why’ questions really open questions? ‘Why’ questions are a favourite of parents, teachers and managers but are they effective in delivering the desired results? Do they really help us to find out why? Often people splutter out, in a panic, the first thing that comes to mind. Rarely, if ever, is that information insightful or useful. In his post, I argue (as the title implies) that from a coaching perspective, why-questions won’t take us forward to consider solutions. Here’s why.
Why ‘why’ feels instinctual
All children go through the ‘why phase’. Talking with my three and half year old niece and trying to explain something recently, every level of explanation was met with ‘why?’ We might argue that the question ‘why?’ is hardwired into our psyche. It becomes almost instinctual to ask ‘why’ when we want more information or to discover the motives behind actions. In reality, asking ‘why’ is a habit. It’s easy. That’s why young children use it. They may not have acquired the language to paraphrase. What they mean is ‘I don’t understand, please explain’. With our more sophisticated grasp of language, we don’t need to rely on ‘why’.
We are not always logical so don’t know ‘why’
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Managers often use ‘why’ as a coded way to say ‘explain yourself’. It is often ‘finger-pointingly’, accusative and a thinly-veiled put-down. It usually means ‘that was a dumb thing to do’. The ‘why’ question assumes that human beings are totally logical – like the Vulcans in Star Trek. The problem is, we are not. We often hold competing values and attitudes about ourselves, the world and other people. Sometimes we just do stuff without thinking it through. Sometimes we don’t know why. So when things haven’t gone to plan, just barking ‘why did you do that?’ to someone isn’t likely to yield much useful information. It’s not enlightening it’s disempowering.
When I was writing Unlock Your Confidence I carefully worded the prompt questions so that I didn’t ask ‘why’. This mirrors the same approach I use in coaching. A couple of the editors didn’t ask why. They just changed the questions to the snappier ‘why’. To the editors, my questions might have seemed odd or indirect. They were supposed to be. I don’t want people to be transported back to a ‘naughty-schoolchild’ mindset’. Instead, coaching aims to empower people to think about things in different, more productive ways. I want to shake up perceptions and assumptions. ‘Why’ questions won’t do that. They just lock us into the problem whereas instead of focusing on solutions. So if we accept that people don’t always know why, let’s find a way of focusing on what they do know. To do this let’s analyze the keywords for open questions.
‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘how’
If we examine the other ‘W’ words ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, there’s a common theme. They all relate to something concrete. When constructing experiments we declare the concrete ingredients before describing the ‘how’. We define the apparatus before detailing the method. It’s the same with a recipe. Ingredients before the step-by-step procedure. Okay, you may protest that when you are pressed for time ‘why’ is just damn quicker. The problem is, that ‘why’ never got your caked baked. That’s mainly down to ‘how’. Even if we do manage to get an answer to ‘why’ question, this may inaccurately frame (or bias) subsequent insights from the other open questions. Sometimes the manager won’t even use the ‘why’ information. It’s just left hanging there without resolution. Instead, the manager or teacher will just tell staff what do to right next time, rather than ask them. ‘Why’ questions can really close down learning because they take us backwards. They are past-oriented questions. ‘Why’ tends to be more abstract and ambiguous. It taps into motivations, attitudes and values. ‘Why’ is philosophical. So, when we are pressed for time, do we really want a philosophical discussion? Why would you want to do that?
Can we never use ‘Why’?
My research supervisor early in my career challenged me about my fondness for exclamation marks. I thought it made me sound engaging, dynamic and passionate. He said it was like laughing at my own jokes. ‘Why’ like exclamation marks should be used sparingly – the equivalent of ‘to really make a point’. In coaching, I rarely use it and if I do, I use it more as a device to get a reality check to be able to shift to a different way of thinking about an issue. In any one coaching session with a client, we spend 20% of the time describing the problem and 80% of the time focusing on solutions. To this end, ‘why’ isn’t very useful at all.
What to use instead of ‘why’
In solution-focused skills training instead of ‘why,’ we use ‘how come?’. It’s rather casual and some might argue that it’s a bit ambiguous or clumsy. However, it appeals to the other person’s insights in a non-threatening way. So if someone is considering making a life-change, asking ‘why’ is often a way of communicating disbelief, implying that it’s the wrong decision. However, people become more invested in declensions if they are allowed to think them through and own them. They may come to realize that the time is not right to make a change. However, it will be their decision. They won’t always be wondering ‘what if?’ So instead of ‘why’ you might ask:
- ‘What is it that attracts you to this option at this time?’
- ‘How did you arrive at this decision?’
- ‘Where might you get further information?’
- ‘Who else might you ask?’
- ‘What tells you that now is a good time to make this change?’
- ‘What other options have you explored?’
All of these questions open out the issue in a way that ‘why’ never will. ‘Why’ may reduce people to the appearance of blithering idiots who don’t appear to know their proverbial arses from their elbows. By substituting ‘why’ with the other open questions, you help draw out a person’s inner resources. ‘Why’ may be quick, but the other open questions, especially ‘how’ promote concrete action. ‘Why’ may often trigger a stress response which puts us into a state of survival (the classic ‘fight or flight’ response) where we are only able to access a limited range of cognitive responses, namely those related to survival. ‘How come?’ is a more relaxed approach which is more likely to enable us to evoke a broader range of cognitive and emotional responses on which we can build.
So that is why you should use ‘why’ sparingly and opt for a broadening range of open questions to tap into a richer source of practical information that helps people learn and move forward.
Finally, as if really need to emphasize the point, here’s a scene in the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) where he challenges the Orwellian super-computer. The protagonist inputs his question and you can see the results here.
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Updated: 18 October 2019.
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About the author
Dr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. To get in touch with Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization, use the form below: