When asking the tough questions, use WHAT not WHY

I read a lot – or I guess, I should say, listen a lot. That’s right, like many others out there, I consume a lot of books through Audible and also have a steady stream of weekly can’t-miss podcasts bookmarked on my phone.

These recordings help me keep my hours behind the wheel both entertaining and productive, while giving me plenty to think about in both my home and work lives.

Recently, I was listening to a new Tasha Eurich book, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life.

The beauty of clarity

If you’ve ever heard me speak, or worked with me through a facilitated session, you know I’m a big fan of clarity and the self awareness it can bring.

Though this book is more about better getting to know one’s own self, in it, I came across a valuable nugget that rang very familiar for my professional work.

The author talks about the importance of asking yourself WHAT questions more often than WHY, when going through self-reflective exercises.

Funny enough, this is a golden rule among facilitators too!

Eurich posits (and I strongly agree) that while WHAT questions generate possibilities, creativity and breadth of thought, “WHY” questions can often shut down those paths of positive exploration.

When facilitating, I always encourage participants to ask themselves questions like, “What were all the events that happened?” or “What are you worried about ?”; “What are you proud of?” or “What might we need to change?” These lead to more productive ideas than WHY questions.

The downside of WHY

WHY questions often seem to lead – one way or another – to criticism or limiting thoughts. (“Why can’t we get this right?”, “Why haven’t we been doing it that way all along?”, or “Why won’t the other team see things our way?” “Why did this happen to us?”).

When we ask WHY questions (on a personal or professional level) we are examining the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, which can lead us to very superficial answers.  Our brains search for the easiest response.  WHY can lead to reduced decision quality as we fall victim to “recency effect”: where the most recent experiences are given disproportionately more weight.

WHY questions can also lead us to being defensive. They can feel accusatory and stir up negative emotions. WHY can draw us to our limitations and keep us trapped in the past.

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do” – Ben Franklin

The magic of WHAT

Meanwhile, WHAT questions tend to keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if the information is negative or goes against our beliefs. WHAT questions can draw us towards our potential, keep us curious and help us create a better future.

Asking WHAT encourages us to name our emotions, which can help us to stay in control. (e.g. “What emotion am I feeling right now?” versus “Why am I feeling this way?”)

Transitioning from WHY questions to WHAT can move us from victimhood to clarity and action. (Scroll down below for a master list of questions for your own use!)

And, like with so many other examples of life imitating work, I find this is just as true for organizations undergoing self-reflection and searching for a clear path forward as it is for self-inquiring individuals.

A counter-argument for WHY

In Insight, Eurich quotes Jim Collins in his book “How the Mighty Fall,” where, on the flip side, he suggests companies that get wrapped up in WHAT they are, and don’t understand WHY they got that way, risk becoming extinct. He encourages organizations or groups to ask themselves WHY?

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In the business world, there is a technique called “5 Why’s” which is aimed at drilling to a root issue by pushing past the superficial response to an initial WHY question, by asking Why four more times. “Why did that happen? Why did THAT happen? Why? … Why?…”. The expectation is that repeated query gets a deeper response.

And yet…

I’d argue, however, that you can ask the ‘WHY’ question that Jim Collins references in a WHAT format.

For example:

“What are all the factors that have contributed to our success?”

“What is our purpose?”

“What keeps our customers coming back?”

“What can we do differently?  Better?”

“What holds us in the present?”

“What blocks us from moving forward?”

“What happens if the customer stops buying from us? Talking to us?”

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Self-awareness meets facilitation

While considering how both Eurich’s views and those of facilitators are so similar on the WHAT versus WHY question, I started thinking whether I might be on to something greater.

I began considering what other areas of facilitation methodology (like the ORID method that I use) that could be applied to a person’s everyday self-reflection – not just in a professional setting. (Look at that, another WHAT question!)

In The Courage to Lead by R. Brian Stanfield, he promotes exactly that – the use of facilitative practice for deeper self-exploration.

I have begun to apply this theory of facilitation in my inner world – taking myself through the Objective, Reflective, Interpretive and Decisional steps as part of my own self-reflection at the end of the day (especially after, say, a professional engagement I’ve led or a family event that has left me with lots to think about).

I’ve found it is in fact helping to lead me to wiser, more satisfactory conclusions and decisions – rather than leaving me ruminating or losing sleep over an experience.

Now I’m left to wonder what other connections between organizational health and personal wellness can be made. WHAT do you think?

Here is a quick guide to reframe less productive WHY questions into more production WHAT questions.

Non productive Productive
  • Why am I in this situation?
  • Why do these things always happen to me / us?

 

  • What are the actual events and happenings?
  • What do I remember someone actually saying?
  • What words did they use?
  • What happened first?  Second? Third?
  • Why did he say that?

 

  • What emotion am I feeling right now?
  • What am/are I/we worried about?
  • What am/are I/we excited about?
  • Why can’t the other group be helpful?
  • Why can’t our leader think more like we do?

 

  • What role do I/we play in this situation?
  • What might be the motivation of our leader?
  • What might be the motivation of the other team?
  • What might be important to the other team?
  • What might the other team be worried about?
  • What do I/we need to move on?
  • Why did this happen to me?

 

  • What are the implications of this situation for me?
  • What are some alternatives?
  • What are the risks and benefits associated with the alternatives?
  • What am I prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • What am I not prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • Why should I expect anything different to happen?
  • What might I do differently next time?
  • What steps can I / we take in the future?