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?

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

Update: Here’s what happened!

June 6, 2019 – Thanks to those of you who weighed in on social media and offered thoughts based on your own experience to this post.

I wanted to make sure I delivered an update to close the loop and share a pretty interesting lesson learned – one I wasn’t expecting from this situation.

Normally, in my work, if a group is searching for a way forward, I would recommend some sort of consensus-based solution which sometimes feels like a compromise. In this case, as I write below in my original post, my own advice probably would have been to get both people to try and find common ground and act in good faith as they both moved more closely toward it.

In fact, in this scenario neither I nor my fellow consultant had to really give anything up or change the way we do things.

Instead, we just worked hard to keep our sections separate and define our scope and goals for the audience. I think the saving grace really was that we had discussed it beforehand and realized that the value, outcome and skills we were offering to the client were different.

So, we told them that! The consultant explained she was there to review and aggregate data, draw out insights and offer advice from her lens of experience. I explained that I was there to help the group explore the content, discern patterns, generate insight and draw their own conclusions.

Together they determined their next steps.

christin-hume-482925-unsplashThe consultant and I kept our sections separate and never interfered or interjected during each other’s activity – knowing it could confuse the crowd if we did.

We both had plenty of time to work with the group, and the client’s support, to let our skills shine. And, it turned out to be a great pair of workshops – for all involved.

Overall, the client was happy we were able to accomplish separately for her what she needed us to do.

What would you have done in this situation? Feel free to tell me in the comments below.

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

I have written recently on a topic that I have plenty of experience with. Infighting, or a sense of competition between teams in the workplace, and how either a facilitator, or a group leader, can work to resolve it.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’ve got lots of helpful answers for those facing this morale-dampening corporate squabbling, these types of situations can be pretty stubborn to solve.

And even though I like to think I’m pretty good at what I do, I don’t always have all the answers.

When it comes to opposing positions, things aren’t always black and white. And even professional consensus-builders like me don’t get a pass.

Here’s a recent example that has led me to follow all my own advice – and hey, I’ll admit, it’s tough work with no easy answer. Here’s the scenario:

I was recently paired with a professional consultant to tackle a project for a valued client.

Because of the very different nature of what we both do, we almost immediately had a clash of approaches.

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It makes sense: a consultant is hired to bring the answer to the table.

Meanwhile, a facilitator’s job is to bring the answer out from the group of participants.

A consultant formulates opinions and shares their work, a facilitator discerns the opinions of the group.

A consultant provides content, the facilitator provides process. A consultant is hired for what they know, a facilitator is hired to help the group bring forward what they know.

So, she and I continue to go back and forth on how we want to run our joint session. Her job is to offer her insights and gain the approval of the group and mine is to discover what the group thinks and enable them to agree with each other.

Honestly, I am not entirely sure how we will resolve our distinct approaches.  And please stay tuned to hear how it ended up.

But I will tell you, in the meantime, it has reminded me that when you’re coming at a problem or opportunity from different mindsets, even if both have some willingness to compromise, the final outcome may not look like what you wanted or hoped it would be going in.

Why can’t we all just get along? Easy tips for building stronger teams

What’s the cost of infighting?

I recently wrote about the damage that infighting, or an “us versus them” mentality can bring to organizations. When groups aren’t getting along – or see themselves as competing with other departments or team members – it can drain productivity, dampen morale and lead to a lasting sense of bad blood between the opposing groups.

Why look to facilitation?

Part of what I do as a professional facilitator is to resolve old hurts, engineer a better sense of collective understanding and ultimately, build stronger teams.

Whether it’s a more general goal, like helping groups work better together, or a specific one – like putting together a strategic plan – leaders can use a similar process to reconcile perceived differences.

These are tried and true ways of building bridges, and often start with a simple clearing of the air and bringing misunderstandings – or different understandings – into the open.

Who needs this?

If you’re a leader, or work alongside a group that is having trouble coming to consensus, there are a few methods you can try to help bring everyone back onto a similar page.

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Try these tips – pulled straight from my facilitator handbook – to help reduce siloed thinking and find unity even among widely varying opinions.

It makes a world of difference – and here’s how you can try it easily, yourself, from the comfort of your own meeting room.

  • Get it all out

Ask everyone to tell you (or the group) everything they know about the subject. What are all the known facts about a topic or subject? Get everyone’s perspective, even when they are at odds. Then ask what is exciting? Concerning? Where are they feeling positive?  Negative?  Where is information missing? What else might they need to know?

  • Use active listening

You can borrow some of the specific exercises I outlined in a previous blog, or, more informally, you can simply give people on your team five minutes to talk about their perspective without interruption. Everyone just listens. Then let someone with an opposing or different perspective talk for five minutes, uninterrupted. If there’s a party with a third perspective, ask them to speak for five minutes, without interruption. By doing that, you can help give a sense that there is a space for all perspectives to sit around the table.

When all the sides have been heard (without interruption), ask the group to summarize their understanding of each perspective and confirm with the speakers that their perspectives have been correctly heard. In this manner, the group affirms its understanding of the various perspectives.

Often, I find the people that talk the fastest, the loudest, the most passionately, the ones with the most vehemence, often haven’t felt heard. They hang on to a position because they’re desperate for someone to simply hear them say it.  You can easily ease this by simply allowing them to fully hold court and present their view and understanding of an issue.

  • Focus on commonalitieshidde-rensink-156982-unsplash

If you’re finding teams or individuals are working at cross-purposes, try to find a common interest. Is there any common ground they can agree on? What are they worried about? What’s at risk? What are the implications if they don’t get the answer they’re looking for? What are some alternatives?

If you’re able to move towards common ground, even, say, making a joint recommendation from a shared position, then you start to move away from gridlock.

  • Reframe “rightness” and “wrongness”

Is being wrong so bad?

In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Katheryn Shultz writes that when you open your mind to other opinions than your own, when you stop laser-focusing on being right, you can enable a whole new level of learning, brainstorming, problem solving and creativity.

But it’s tough! As she points out, since grade school, we’ve all been conditioned to try and get the best marks, find the right answer. And if we’re wrong, we’re diminished. We feel embarrassed, ashamed, rejected.

Yet, she contends, when you get a “right answer,” you’re simply affirming something you already know – and where’s the growth it that?

Only when you explore wrongness can you truly grow and learn something new.

With this in mind, try to encourage a mindset during group discussions that that nothing participants say is wrong. This will help create movement in the room – when that fear is reduced and when people find themselves more comfortable sharing ideas from all different viewpoints – and listening to those who they might usually not.

5) Think like a facilitator

If you’re facing a situation where your team members are really stuck – and you find yourself in the middle – don’t be afraid to say it. It’s not unusual for me to observe an impasse during a group discussion and share that observation with the group. I will ask the group if they see it differently.  And then I will ask the group for ideas on how to move forward: maybe everyone needs a break, maybe everyone wants to continue to hack away at the problem, or maybe we can shift tracks and tackle another issue and return to the sticky issue later.

When in doubt, I always put it back to the group, so they understand where they are at in the process, and so that the group has the opportunity to identify what they need in order to find their way back to a productive place.

I’ll be honest, there used to be a time when I felt that I was failing to “own the meeting” when I turned the decision back to the group (i.e. how could I run the meeting if I didn’t have all the answers?). Now I understand that I never owned the meeting in the first place, the group did. My job was – and is – to help the group decide what it wanted… And, in a lot of cases, this is a leader’s role too. If this scenario sounds familiar, I encourage you to take a moment, forget about ownership, and think more about consensus – like a facilitator!