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Why not to ask why and what to ask instead of it?

"Why did you do that?" - whether this question comes from your spouse, your co-founder, or your father, chances are it will create defensiveness in you."Why asking why questions can be so triggering, and what can I ask instead of it?" Last week I was asked this question twice: both in a personal and in a professional coaching setting. I became curious: how can we ask better questions?


women talking conversation over table
Stay curious and be a good listener

Create the connection first


Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in people, relationships, and organizations. By asking questions, you naturally improve your emotional intelligence, which in turn makes you a better questioner. The first step in becoming a better questioner is simply to ask more questions. Pattabhi Jois, the famous ashtanga yogi said "Practice and all is coming." Practice asking more questions and it'll get better over time.


Asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding.


Here is the point. Questions and answers have a power that goes far beyond effectiveness and performance. The magic of a great conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: it will create connection between two humans. In order to experience it, you need to learn how to ask great questions, and be a good listener at first. Build the connection first, practice asking more questions and learn to be curious about the why together!


“Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” - Dale Carnegie

Explore the underlying needs


People asking the why questions tend to think in practical terms and they quickly want to get to the point, "understand what's happening" or "simply get more information". They think in practical terms, focus on the issue itself and want to get to the solution. Simple. The other person who is being asked the why questions often starts defending themselves, and their opinion. It's quite the opposite what the questioner wanted to have. It's counterproductive for both parties. The person who asks the why won't get more information or have greater understanding, and the person who was asked won't be able to express their opinion freely and honestly anymore.


Let's look at the needs quickly: (I like using Marshall Rosenberg's Needs Inventory associated with Non-Violent Communication (NVC) to identify the underlying needs. All conflicts go back to not meeting these universal and fundamental needs.) One likely has a need for learning, and making sense, while the other has needs like being understood, heard and competence. How can you make it possible in a conversation?


What happens if you ask why?


Why puts people on the defensive side. It tends to come across as demanding and confrontational. It almost immediately creates a light existential crisis in the person. People suddenly feel a need to explain themselves, defend a stance or choice, or back it up with their values and beliefs. By starting your conversations with why, it can send off signals of judgement from you, and indicate a lack of trust in their own judgement. Why can often come out as bossy, judgemental and it looks for justification instead of finding a solution.


One thing we know is the more people defend a stance, the more committed they become to it. So, if you ask why about something that wasn’t a great choice, then you are accidentally pushing the person to defend that choice.


You ask why, while the other person may interpret it as: "Explain yourself." Why questions rarely have satisfactory answers. Why is stimulating the already busy mind to analyze more, look for errors and ultimately stay stuck instead of move forward and examine the question instead: "What's now?".


Why also limits options. Why does the same job as asking closed questions when the answer can only be yes or no. It shuts down the conversation and psychologically closed questions can introduce bias and manipulation.


When is it OK to ask why?


Why questions are not a no-no. You don't have to delete it from your vocabulary. Ask why questions when they are asked in the context of a relationship where there is safety, respect, curiosity, and empathy. On the other hand, these qualities can be created by asking other type of questions. ;)


It’s also about how you ask the why questions: what't the context, the tone, voice, etc. When you ask it “Why did you do that?” it absolutely puts the other person on the defensive. Why can sound if it was blaming, when what you want here is curiosity. If you want to ask why questions, think about how you can elicit motivation toward change. For example:


Why is it so important to you?

Why is this more of a priority than other things to you right now?



Questions to ask instead of why


Changing the habit of asking why questions, start with observation. Begin by noticing your questions at first. How many questions are you asking vs. the use of other forms of sentences? What type of questions are you asking? Notice when do you ask why. Once you have some understanding about your patterns, start phrasing your questions differently.


As a rule of thumb, start your questions with what and how instead of why. When you start replacing why, you have to think through what you really want to know, and how you want your question to take the conversation forward. Most likely it won't happen from one day to another. You're developing a new skill and rewiring how your brain works. Over time, it'll become easier and more natural. It'll also become much more enjoyable, once you'll notice the positive effect on the quality of your conversations and your relationships.


Understand what happened:

  1. What made you do that?

  2. What made that happen?

  3. What were you hoping to achieve in doing that?

  4. What was the benefit to you in doing that?

  5. What was your thinking behind that decision/action?

  6. I noticed XZY. Could you tell me more about what happened here?

  7. Who else had a part in this story?

  8. What role did they play?

  9. What have you tried so far? How did it go?

  10. What got in the way? What stopped you from...? What did you prioritise over...?


Get more information:

  1. Tell me more about it!

  2. What’s happening now?

  3. What is it that I'm not seeing yet?

  4. What is your thinking around it?

  5. How did you end up with this idea/solution?


Build the connection/go deeper:

  1. What's happening in you now?

  2. What is your gut feeling about it?

  3. How is it aligned with your values/with our company's values?

  4. How is this showing up emotionally for you in your body?

  5. What comes up for you?


Craft a solution:

  1. What are the options now?

  2. Who could help you? How can I help? Who else can help?

  3. What other resources do you need?

  4. When was another time you had something similar happen? What did you do then? What helped back then?

  5. How did you want this to go? How do you want to move forward?

  6. How does this/that solve the problem?

  7. What issues does this/that address?

  8. What am I not asking you that I should/could help here?

Prioritize:

  1. How important is it to you to achieve this?

  2. What happens if we won't get it done?

  3. What will happen if we have to delay/cancel this/that?

  4. What are your priorities in this situation?

  5. How does this/that fit into our overall plan?


 

Asking great questions is a skill that can be developed by practice. Here are five points to remember:

  • Identify your needs

  • Build the connection

  • Listen first

  • Practice asking more questions

  • Stay curious

 

Zsanett Czifrus is a coach for entrepreneurial women helping them elevating their life and business. She works with international and expat women who dare to reinvent themselves, discover new ways of being and lead a life that radiates their unique personality.


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