Why You Shouldn’t Ask Why? And What Open Questions You Should Use Instead

We are told that to open up conversations we should use open questions, that is, questions that begin with ‘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 suggests) that we should use the other open question forms (instead of ‘why’) for solution finding. The question is ‘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’

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodManagers 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, why 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.

When I was writing Unlock Your Confidence I carefully worded 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’. My questions sometimes seem odd. However they are supposed to. I want people to think about things in a different way. I want to shake up perceptions and assumptions. ‘Why’ questions won’t do that. They just lock us into the problem whereas I want to focus on the 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 key words 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 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 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 broaden range of cognitive and emotional responses on which we can build.

So that is why you should use ‘why’ sparingly and opt for a broaden 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 and you can see the results here. No prizes for guess what the question was.

___________

If you found this post useful:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is 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. Contact Gary Wood by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

 

Advertisements

7 Attitudes Towards Human Nature and How They Affect Self-Esteem

For his classic book Assumptions about Human Nature, social psychologist Lawrence Wrightsman conducted extensive research into how we judge human nature and the social world. Other commentators on his research have argued that the ‘self-accepting’ (higher self-esteem) person tends to view the world as a friendlier place than does the self-rejecting person (lower self-esteem). In this post we consider seven attitudes about human nature:

  1. Agree or disagree? People are basically honest and trustworthy.
  2. Agree or disagree? People are basically altruistic and try to help others.
  3. Agree or disagree? People have a lot of control over their lives.
  4. Agree or disagree? People have a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Agree or disagree? Most people will speak out for what they believe in.
  6. Agree or disagree? You can’t accurately describe a person in a few words (that is, people are simple to understand)
  7. Agree or disagree? People’s reactions differ from situation to situation (people are unpredictable)

Black-and-white thinking indicates a degree of cognitive inflexibility and has been implicated in emotional issues (disturbance). Challenging this kind of binary thought is a key principle in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and in life coaching based on the CBT model. One of the techniques is to explore exceptions to the ‘rule’.

Begin by asking the following questions:

  1. Do your responses (to the 7 attitudes) make for a safe and friendly world or an unsafe and hostile one?
  2. How do these attitudes shape your social interactions, especially in relation to confidence building?
  3. Which of these attitudes are most likely to act as an obstruction to your personal development and goals?

Consider each attitude in turn and explore exceptions to the attitude, such as, ‘People have a lot of control over their lives’. Consider the ways however small where you have control over your life. Also considering ‘People have a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses’. What are your strengths? Continue through the seven attitudes to consider exceptions to all attitudes that have a less favourable view of human nature. Each time consider how each attitude impacts on your self-acceptance (esteem).

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my coaching practice, I take a solution-focused approach which means that we focus on strengths and opportunities. As a client you will also look at your values, the principles and ideals you stand for in life. One of the challenges is to consider how attitudes and actions support your values and in turn support your goals. In confidence coaching (and in my book Unlock Your Confidence) a key theme is to consider how attitudes impact on confidence and esteem.

In solution focused coaching there is a maxim: the viewing influences the doing, and vice versa. This means that how we view ourselves, how we view the world and how we view other people, will influence what we do with our lives, our actions. The literally meaning of ‘attitude’ is ‘fit and ready for action’. Having the courage to take action is at the root of confidence.

_______

If you enjoyed this post and found it useful:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Links:

How to be More Persuasive and Convincing: Use the Rule of Three

It’s not difficult to persuade anyone of the prevalence and significance of the number three in Western culture. It’s everywhere, from sport (three points for a win, hat-tricks),  fairy tales (Bears, Pigs, wishes), literature (Musketeers), films (Amigos, Stooges),  to religion (the Trinity), interior designers (three ornaments on a shelf) even stand-up comedy (the rule of three elements in a joke). We even say that bad new comes in threes! There is something intrinsically satisfying about the number three to our pattern-seeking brains.

In psychology there are also plenty of triads such as Sigmund Freud‘s id, ego and superego (in psychoanalysis) and Eric Berne‘s parent, adult, child (in transactional analysis). I was surprised at just how many there are, so much so, that when writing my book Unlock Your Confidence I found it useful to use a triangle device to communicate the essence of psychological theories, without getting too bogged down in the details. I tested in workshops and it was a fast and effective way of introducing new material without taking away from the hands-on, experiential nature of the workshops. People really seem to get ‘three’.

It turns out that the rule of three offers a blueprint for persuasiveness. Kurt Carlson (Georgetown University) and Suzanne Shu (University of California) in their research paper ‘When Three Charms but Four Alarms’, find the ideal number of claims to include in a persuasive argument. People, firms and products should all use the ‘charm of three’ when making positive claims. Two is not convincing and adding a fourth point is viewed as a step too far.  It actually has a detrimental effect and increases scepticism..

This post is deliberately brief as the rule of three has endless applications. I figure your time would be better spent updating your CV (resume), updating your websites, rethinking your presentations, sales pitches, marketing and advertising campaigns or just the humble negotiations in relationships. There is no need to come up with as many convincing reasons as long as your arm. Three will do nicely.

Links:

Why There’s No Such Thing as “Too Much Confidence” or “Over-Confidence”

We often hear the phrase ‘over-confidence‘ (or ‘too much confidence’). There is no such thing!  If it seems too much or ‘over the top’ then it’s not confidence. It might be arrogance, aggression, over-compensation, blind faith or even delusions. Most importantly, it may indicate lower self-esteem. These over-the-top displays of bluff, bluster and bravado are nothing but a smoke-screen.

‘Fake it ’til you make it’ confidence is based on stress

Outer displays of ‘over-confidence’ are part of the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach, whereby you behave confidently until you actually believe it and until it becomes ‘part of you’. So they begin as a way to counter a lack of self-belief. Yes it’s good to take action and indeed confidence does need a leap of faith, however, real confidence, true self-assurance starts within. At its root, confidence is about feeling comfortable in your own skin. If it seems ‘too much’ it’s about covering up for discomfort. Inner confidence is cool and level-headed. ‘Over-confidence’ is hot-headed. That’s because psyched-up displays are more likely to stem from the classic stress responses of fight or flight. most notably, the fight response!

Building confidence is like building rapport

In face-to-face interactions people tend to model and match each other as they build rapport. So they may begin using similar words and gestures as the other person. This happens spontaneously. This is why, embarrassingly, you may find yourself starting to speak in a similar regional accent to the other person. A similar thing happens with confidence. When we are around truly confident people, it rubs off. Confidence is positively contagious. You begin to relax and this brings out ‘the best in you’ and you pass this on to others. The thing about body language is that if we focus on relaxing we don’t have to worry about faking it. The body language takes care of itself. If everyone is a little too ‘in your face’ and intent on ‘faking it’ then the encounter is based on lies and that can be stressful. If you are stressed, then it’s not confidence.

The difference between assertiveness and aggression

We prize assertiveness but it is often confused with aggression. The concepts are often used interchangeably but are very different things. In an assertive state we can stand our ground and make our point and still accept that another person doesn’t necessarily have to accept our view. We can be assertive and still be quite calm. On the other hand, aggression is all about making sure another person accepts our point of view. Aggression is all about force. It’s all about the fight. So if a person dominates a space and leaves no room for other opinions or for others to contribute that’s not confidence. It’s aggression or maybe even outright bullying.

Relaxation is the basis of elite performance

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my workshops, first  I focus on relaxation. In a relaxed state we are able to access a broader range of emotional responses, skills and abilities. Professional athletes adopt a similar strategy. they begin by learning to take control of their own stress response. This doesn’t mean that they perform in a ‘semi-comatose’ state. They learn plenty of techniques to psych themselves up too. The point is that the cornerstone of elite performance is relaxation. This is what we build upon. So in my workshops, I invite people to take risks and have fun. I’m aways the first in the workshop to risk looking foolish. Usually by the mid-morning break, everyone in the group is chatting as though they are good friends. At least one person comments on that when I ask for feedback. They are surprised at how quickly the group forms. And for my part, I never cease to be amazed at how quickly people will grow and take risks if you provide the necessary conditions. Many of them have attended workshops and training courses where they have managed to get through the whole day without learning anyone’s name. That never happens in my workshops.

Fear and respect are not the same

We all learn more efficiently when we are relaxed and amongst a group of like-minded people, not when we are stressed in a group of (hostile) strangers. This is the basis of my confidence-karma approach, that is, we build confidence in ourselves as we pass it on to others. We begin by relaxing ourselves and then focusing on putting others at ease.  The most frequent challenge I get to this approach is from managers who question whether they will get respect if they ‘try to be everyone’s friend’. Nowhere in my book or workshop do I suggest we should try to be everyone’s friend. Being a boss and focusing on putting people at ease do not have to be mutually exclusive. It’s common amongst managers to confuse fear and respect. Respect is earned and fear can be overcome. You will get a lot of respect from being a person who empowers others.

No such thing as ‘too much confidence’ with the Confidence-Karma approach

So that’s why according to my approach, there is no such thing as over-confidence or too much confidence. Confidence people bring out the best in others, they don’t scare them into submission.

If you liked this post, please use the ‘like’ and buttons below and pass on the message to others or check out Gary’s other posts about confidence

Links: