Mike was confused. Even though he was successful, he struggled with personal connections. He had professional relationships but they were very superficial and work-only oriented. When he tried to converse outside of business matters, he sounded awkward and unintelligent.
Home wasn’t any better. His relationship with his wife centered on discussing only severe matters about their teenagers. For the most part, he had no idea what his kids were doing and with whom they were doing it. And even less idea what was happening in his marriage. He felt lonely and isolated both at work and home.
So he decided to change by asking more questions. As a naturally analytic person, he was often baffled by why people did what they did. It seemed logical to just ask “Why?” He thought this would open up more conversation. But instead, it had the opposite effect. Now more confused than ever, Mike sought out help to better understand what was wrong with asking “Why” and how he could accomplish his goal of better interpersonal relationships.
“Why” questions judgement. “Why did you do that?” “Why did you say this?” “Why are you so angry?” “Why do you care so much?” “Why does this matter?” In each of these “Why” questions, the answer begins with “Because.” Immediately, people are placed on the defensive and forced to explain themselves. Behind the “Why” question, there is an assumption that the behaviors/words/emotions are not appropriate, therefore demanding further clarification, rationalization, or even justification. Implied within that is a judgement or a bias of incorrectness. When dealing with a person whose perception might not be the same as the questioner, it further suggests a hint of superiority. This is why “Why” questions should be used very judiciously.
When “Why” is harmful. To the points above, when in a relationship with a person who utilizes “Why” questions, this pushes others away. In the case of Mike, his wife felt his “Why” questions elevated him to more of a parental role with her instead of a partnership. His teenagers hated having to explain everything they were doing and felt interrogated by him. His co-workers saw the “Why” questions as evidence that Mike felt they were incompetent at their jobs. Even though Mike’s intention was to understand and not confront, each party felt the opposite.
When “Why” is useful. There are times, however, when asking a “Why” question is useful and preferable. For instance, attorneys frequently ask “Why” questions when a person is on the stand or taking a deposition. They can also be useful when an investigator is interrogating a witness or suspect. In both cases, the intention is to put a person on the defense and thereby gain more information or cause the person to make a mistake. There might be times in a personal relationship when confrontation is necessary to bring about change. Then a “Why” question is preferred due to the directness and simplicity of making a point.
Ask why without using “Why.” There are many ways to come alongside a person and gain understanding without asking “Why.” “I’m confused by what happened, can you please explain it?” “Help me understand what you meant.” “I see that you are angry, is there something I can do to help?” “You have such a caring heart, where does it come from?” “It seems this is important to you, can you expand on it further?” These alternative statements/questions accomplish the same objective as “Why” questions without causing a person to self-protect. When it comes to building or fostering a relationship, this method is preferable to a more aggressive approach of “Why” questioning.
Mike stopped asking “Why” questions and instead came up with a few alternatives. At first it was difficult to rethink the question into a more connective phrasing, but with time, Mike mastered the technique. In the end, he benefited from the additional effort by having better relationships at home and work.