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?

Facts are friendly

What are some key words? What phrases did you highlight? What number was quoted?  What did you hear? What graphs did you notice?  What colours do you see? 

These are a series of questions that I frequently ask participants and students of facilitation alike. It is surprising how difficult it is to get a response to these questions.

The questions are easy and the answers obvious, and yet, people hesitate to offer a response. They are perplexed. Why you would ask such simple questions of a capable group of people? Is it a trick question? There must be some deeper significance sought. The answer couldn’t be as simple as ‘red’.

…students have said to me, “I didn’t know where you were going with the question, so I didn’t know how to answer the question” … when I asked the question, “what colour did you see?”.  

Facts, data, sensory information

In facilitator parlance, we call these simple questions objective level questions: the facts, basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic. These basic pieces of information are drawn in through what we’ve read, heard, seen, experienced, touched or tasted and they help us to form a common understanding of the topic at hand. These pieces of data inform a concrete starting point that is necessary for a group to successfully think through a topic.

Western thought values thinking that connects dots, sees patterns and looks for meaning or what we call the interpretive level of thinking. Analysis, deductive reasoning, extrapolation, interpretation are all forms of interpretive thinking and are tremendously well trained in professions such as business, engineering and accounting. A connect-the-dots response is the kind of response that is often rewarded and the thinking that make us seem smart. When we can take a piece of data and turn it into thoughtful commentary we are ‘bright’, ‘insightful’ and ‘quick thinking’.

“Our nervous system is at the same time a data-gathering system, an emotional processing system, a meaning-creation system and a decision/implementing system.” – Edgar Schein

There is a bias towards interpretive thinking

In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking. Without question, interpretive thinking is an essential part of the thinking process. The challenge that emerges with our bias towards interpretive thinking is that we are quickly led towards interpretations without having fully considered all our data points. Decisions are made before all sources of data have been considered and all facts present. The result can be outcomes that later earn a “how did we miss that?” kind of reflection.

In the absence of the objective data, we flounder

Without a solid grounding in the objective level of data, we tend to flounder. We find ourselves going around in circles and struggling to ground ourselves in the present reality. Each person approaches the conversation with a different understanding of the situation which often leads to confusion and the absence of clarity.

 …. an 8 year old child comes through the door with a story of a fight erupting from a simple game at the playground. The child launches into her story and you find yourself asking: Where were you playing?  Who was there?  Whose ball was it? What happened first?  Then what happened? Who showed up? When did they show up? Ok, whose dog was it? 

You can’t understand the story until you understand the situation. You can’t understand the situation until you’ve compiled your facts – the objective level of data.

…a participant walks in to a meeting room, well prepared, having read the pre-read package. The meeting chair starts the discussion. The well prepared person shares the conclusion they’ve drawn. Someone else, who did not read the package says something like – “Are we talking about project x? What dates are you referring to? What part of the project are you addressing? “Who provided this material?” And around it goes until everyone has a common understanding of the situation. 

Objective data brings clarity

There is tremendous power in spending time on the objective information that sometimes seems ‘too simple for words’.  It accomplishes a couple of things. First, it ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic to be discussed. It is much easier to move a conversation forward when people in the room are not grappling for facts. Many times I have seen a meeting chase its tail because participants did not start with the same set of facts. How many times have you seen a discussion start with the ‘rightness’ of a number? Until the facts are clear and known by all – the meeting will be circular.

Second, it ensures that if there are different perspectives on a fact, that it is surfaced. This is not to suggest we are trying to surface ‘alternate facts’, but it does remind us that I can see a 20% gross margin as excellent and someone else can see it is an opportunity for improvement. You can see the process of using a sticky note to pass information along as efficient and someone else sees it as ‘vintage’.  I can see a colour as orange and someone else as tangerine.

Objective data grounds a conversation

It is surprising how often people push back on starting a discussion by confirming the objective level of data. I hear things like – “everyone knows that”, “these people are too busy for this”, “we don’t have enough time”, “we all know the process”. In our time pressed environments, the time spent one ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.

When I walk into a room to do business process work, we start with the current state. It is virtually a guarantee that when the current state goes up on the wall, people will say, “I didn’t know that”, “I had no idea”, “seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.  

Objective data reduces anxiety and frustration

Frustration, anxiety, pointed questions, bad decisions and blame often stem from a fuzzy understanding of the objective level of data. When decisions are made with incomplete data, where one person held a piece of information that another did not, blame and frustration are often the outcome. Time spent sharing the basic facts contributes to the clarity which allows anxiety and frustration to dissipate.

A group I worked with found itself in a circular situation where there was resistance to exploring current state processes (because everyone knows the process) and frustration because no one knew what the processes were and what came next. There was an overwhelming sense that the problems were too hard to solve.

 

Objective data helps us to challenge our assumptions

One of the most important aspects of spending time on the objective level of data is that it helps us challenge our assumptions and prevent us from relying on past strategies and outcomes that may bias our thinking in a situation. A former NASA flight director talks about the approach they use for staving off panic in a crisis situation.  They start with a series of questions:

  • What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation? (may draw on experience and sometimes an objective question)
  • Did the team have enough information to know for sure – and how could they get more information?

Helpful objective level questions

What are some helpful objective level questions for your next meeting? Consider the types of questions a reporter might ask:

  • What words did you hear someone say?
  • What did they actually say?
  • What did phrases did you read in the document?
  • What do you remember seeing? hearing? doing?
  • What happened first? second? third?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was there?
  • Where were you?
  • What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
  • What did we capture as an action item?

Facts are friendly

Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me “facts are friendly, facts are friendly”.  It wasn’t until I jumped deeply into the study of facilitative methods that I truly understood what he meant.  The objective level of data (facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly, when clear thinking is needed.