By Chris Chittenden
“I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who."
… Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936), “The Elephant's Child” (1902)
What word do you begin most of your questions with? If you are like most people, you will ask “why” questions more often. Even though this may seem innocuous enough at first glance, there are often some interesting by-products when a “why” question is asked.
The first thing to consider is how “why” questions fit into effective conversations. As coaches, we have learnt that an effective conversation is one takes the participants to an outcome they desire. You may recall from previous articles, that we can identify three types of conversation – descriptive, speculative and action. A “descriptive conversation” helps those involved develop a shared understanding about something that is relevant to them; a “speculative conversation” is all about creating new possibilities and finally an “action conversation” relates to the coordination of action with others. “Why” questions are largely the domain of “descriptive conversations” and asking them holds people in explaining the reasons behind how things are. Although valuable in developing a shared understanding, “descriptive conversations” focus on the past and have people look backwards. Hence, if you want to move towards new actions, too many “why” questions may not be beneficial as they hold people in the past.
Next, when asked a “why” question about their actions, many people feel the need to justify themselves. This is exacerbated if, as is generally the case, there is no context put with the “why” question. A lack of context allows for a broad interpretation of the question and if a person has a concern about their role in a situation then justification will most likely follow. This has the potential to set up an underlying emotional space that is defensive. If you are seeking to have a conversation where new actions are taken, then such a mood is not conducive to that. Rather such situations allow for the possibility of blaming others or obviating responsibility and these aspects have to then be dealt with before progress can be made.
As coaches, we seek to have conversations to generate new actions and so we do not ask many “why” questions. If we want to explore the story behind a situation, we will most likely ask “what” questions with a context. For example, rather than “Why did you do that?”; we might start by developing context and ask “What was important for you in doing that?”. We can then use their response to get a sense of what they hoped to achieve and move the conversation forward from there.
Furthermore, we have often worked with managers who get asked lots of “why” questions and fall in to the trap of justifying themselves and the ineffective moods that go with that. These people often resort to clichés or a parroted company line as their response and this can have a negative impact on their authority with those people who report to them. A useful strategy in these situations is to learn to reframe “why” questions in to “what” or “how” questions that have a forward focus and then answer those questions.
There is much more to developing an effective conversational style, however one place to start is to listen to how often you use or answer “why” questions and observe the responses you get or give. This awareness may be the start of an improvement in your communication style.
© 2005 Chris Chittenden