Don’t Ask Why!

Last Updated: Oct 8, 2020 | Executive Coaching, Leadership

Don’t ask why? Why not? As we work with others on a daily basis, we are constantly seeking to understand what others are saying, processing and analyzing information, assessing our options, and developing recommendations. We naturally need to know, “why?”

“Some members of our team think we should fast track a new product currently in R&D”… Why? “Finance wants us to modify our promotional offer”… Why? “Kayla is being recommended as leader for a new project team”… Why?

These are important questions, but there’s a fundamental drawback to leading with “why.” Simply put, “why” has a strong tendency to trigger an automatic defense response in people. Add tone of voice and body language, and a “why” question can quickly become more an aggressive challenge than a quest to comprehend, explore, or clarify a statement or point-of-view. If people feel defensive or threatened by your questions doors to understanding, engagement, and collaboration will slam shut. Now you are in a win-lose conversation and the person challenged by “why” feels the need to defend at all costs and win the point.

Open-Ended Questions That Productively Expand the Conversation

Here are a few ways to ask questions and engage people that will help you learn more and communicate more positively and effectively without asking “why.”

  • What about that is important to you? (e.g., the other person’s idea, proposal, or recommendation)
  • What would you do with this if you had it? (e.g., something the other person desires or is advocating for)
  • When the other person wants to take a certain action, ask, “…in order to what?”

In this way, your questions create positive, genuine opportunities to explore and define meaning and purpose —  and move away from provoking a prickly defense. For more about the art of asking questions, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “The Key to Asking Excellent Questions.”

An Exercise to Develop Your Skills

Think about a specific project or task that you are working on with someone — this works for personal as well as professional communication. As you consider what you need to understand to form an opinion, identify next steps, or determine a course of action, write down two or three questions you need to ask — where do you need clarity? What concerns you?

First, frame your questions in a conventional “why” format. 

  • Why do you think we should add this functionality to our new app?
  • Why should we reduce our promotional offer from a 60-day free trial to 30 days?
  • Why is Kayla the strongest candidate for team leader?

Now, reframe your questions in a way that avoids using “why” and creates a more positive, constructive atmosphere for deeper communication. 

  • What is it about adding this functionality to the app that is important to you?
  • What would customers do with the app’s added functionality if they had it?
  • We should shorten the free trial period to 30 days…in order to what?
  • How does assigning Kayla team leader benefit the team and the company?

Avoiding “why” will elicit a different, more useful and collaborative response.

And, of course, now that you have asked your questions, it’s up to you to be a great listener. So consider your listening skills too! Read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Beyond Active Listening: The Power of Level Three Listening.”

To learn more about how leaders ask great questions (and listen expertly), contact the executive coaches at Arden Coaching at info@ardencoaching.com or 646.684.3777.

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