We hear it all the time (especially from kids) and ask it often (more on that later).
"Why?" Is a question used in all sorts of situations, and its prevalence should hint to its usefulness.
And yet, for all of its value, "Why?" can cause a lot of problems, miscommunications, misunderstandings and more because the "Why?" question is so like a double-edged sword.
Therefore, we must examine and learn the uses and misuses of this powerful word / question in order to use it most effectively.
Why So Powerful?
"Why?" is a powerful question because it …
… stimulates learning. "Why?" is the quintessential open-ended question. The answer to "Why?" Provides new information for the asker.
… allows discovery. Asking "Why?" Helps us find the root cause of a problem by diving into the details. Similarly, this question can lead to discoveries in situations other than problem solving as well.
… creates understanding – for both parties. Have you ever explained something to someone else and after you explained it you understood it better? The "Why?" question creates deeper individual understanding and allows for mutual understanding as well.
… quenches curiosity. Kids ask "Why?" Because they intuitively know that the answers will help them learn, discover and understand. In other words, "Why?" It is the perfect question to ask when we are curious, and the perfect question to stimulate our curiosity as well.
Why So Dangerous?
The "Why?" question is powerful … and … it`s rife with challenge.
Do this quick mental exercise. Think about all the different ways you have heard (or you could ask) "Why?"
With just a bit of imagination you probably will be able to hear your parents or other people with positional power asking the question in a way that wasn`t about curiosity or learning, but in a more "questioning" or accusatory manner.
While the problems certainly don`t always come from a place of positional power, because we have all experienced this, it highlights the challenge this question faces.
"Why?" is dangerous because it can …
… insinuate power. The power piece can come when words are added to the question, like "Why did you to that?" The problem – and danger – is that as a receiver we can add those additional words in our mind even if they aren`t said; creating meaning that may or may not have been intended by the asker. Either way, once the receiver assumes it, that power is implied. Often – because of this – the receiver may be reticent to answer, may answer in a limited way or in the way we think we "should."
… suggest judgment. Again, this judgment could be coming from someone in power, but not necessarily. The reality is most of us want to be liked and accepted. When we hear judgment in the "Why?" question, we can be stymied by caution or answer in the way in which we assume others want.
… impede progress. Any question that leads us to be cautious, incomplete or inauthentic in our answers is a dangerous question because almost by definition it will keep us from moving forward, hide problems or actually move us in the wrong direction. Improper use of the "Why?" question can do all of these things – and more.
Herein lies the danger, for none of these outcomes allows the question to reach its full power and may actually have a damaging effect in a conversation or meeting.
How to Best Use Why
The key to using the "Why?" question first comes in understanding the powers and dangers, then in balancing them correctly. Once we know the risks, we can …
… preface our questions to minimize the power and judgment concerns of the receiver.
… watch the tone of our voice, realizing that tone could – intentionally or not – imply judgment.
… monitor our intent, because if we really are passing judgment perhaps we want to modify our approach, or at least not expect the fullness of answers we might get if our intention was different.
… ask the "Why?" question differently, to avoid some of the risks (ask, "Can you tell me more?", or "How do you mean?" as just two examples).
Using any or all of these approaches can help you get the very most from this most powerful question.