19th October 2011

Don’t ask me ‘Why?’


Ever noticed how, at a certain stage in their development, a child’s favourite word is ‘Why?’  It seems to prefix just about everything they say - ‘Why did he do that? Why can’t I have that? Why does a cake rise? Why do I have to get dressed?’ 

To be on the receiving end of the constant stream of ‘Why?’ is not always easy.  But, as adults we encourage children to ask as many ‘Why?’ questions as they can.  Particularly, because the ‘Why?’ question is so fundamental to our development.  It demonstrates curiosity and a yearning to understand how things work and, assists us as we begin to make meaning of what is happening within us and around us.  ‘Why?’ is often the first word we use to articulate our curiosity about the complex workings of relationship.

In its purest form ‘Why?’ is a fabulous question.  Yet increasingly I notice, for many adults, this tiny three letter word is experienced as threatening, invasive, blaming and combative.  As a result the response to it is one of defence, attack, anger, panic and/or fear.  What’s fascinating is it seems to be happening in any number of contexts i.e. intimate relationships, employer/employee, between friends and colleagues as well as customers and staff members.

The most distressing part - no matter the context, the result is always the same – disconnection!

Eliminate ‘Why?’ and restore connection

Neuroscience clearly shows that for humans to connect there needs to be a level of safety within the relationship – even in brief encounters such as those between a customer and a staff member.  To feel safe we need to know we are not under attack and, that what we have to say is accepted as a valid reflection of our personal experience.  Safety, even in the briefest of encounters, can be established through a smile, a kind word, open body language and a neutral tone.  It can just as easily be destroyed by using that little word ‘Why?’
It would seem that if we want a positive outcome to any conversation then it would be helpful to eliminate the word ‘Why?’

What to do when you want to ask ‘Why?’

This does not mean you have to stop being curious.  Quite the opposite – I want to encourage you to be even more curious.  In fact be curious enough to ask yourself ‘How can I ask my question in a way that establishes safety, promotes openness and restores connection?’
By asking this question you are giving yourself permission to pay attention to the relationship and the impact your actions and words have on the relationship.  When making such a shift it is often useful to use the following steps:-

  • Gain permission to ask questions

    One of the most powerful tools for developing safety and restoring connection is asking permission to gather more information.  So, before you rush into asking any questions at all (even if they aren’t ‘Why?’ questions) ask permission.  This can be done very simply by saying ‘It would be really valuable for me to know more about that.  Would it be ok if I asked a few questions?’  It keeps the conversation relational as it:-
    1. Acknowledges the other person may be in flow of a particular thought whih your question may interrupt
    2. It offers the other person the opportunity to check whether it would be ok for you to ask questions and whether they are ready and open to receiving them: and
    3. It demonstates your unerstanding that your questions wil require someting of the other question
  • Identify what drives your question

    If you find yourself wanting to ask the question ‘Why?’ then stop and ask yourself what is driving the question.  While the word ‘Why?’ comes from a thinking place, there is usually an emotion sitting behind it.  Try to identify the emotion connected to the ‘Why?’  This will give you insight into what is driving your question.  Quite often we ask a ‘Why?’ question because we have an opinion about what the other person is saying and we want to gather evidence to prove why we are right and they are wrong.  I would also encourage you to ask yourself ‘Is my question going to increase connection or create disconnection?’  If it is to increase connection then go onto the next step.  If it is to increase disconnection then become really curious about why you want to disconnect by taking some time out to think about what is really driving your need to disconnect.
  • Change the focus of your question

    Next step is to use your curiosity to ask your question in a more exploratory and open manner.  One of my favourite ways to do this is to say ‘I’m really interested in what you are saying. Would you be open to telling me more about that?’  This makes it crystal clear that I am interested in what they are saying and that I need more information.  The key point is that it does it in a way that is inviting and promotes safety for the other to share and exchange ideas and thought with you.
  • Ask a different question

    If you choose to eliminate ‘Why?’ then you may want to replace it with one of five key words:  ‘How’, ‘What’, ‘Where’, ‘Who’, and ‘When’.  All of these words can be added to the end of the sentence shared in the point above.  For example ‘I’m really interested in what you are saying.  Would you be open to telling me more about what your thinking was around that?’  This would be a more open and safe way of asking ‘Why were you thinking that?’

In my experience, this simple shift really does help establish safety, promote openness and restore connection – but it requires practice – and lots of it.  It requires you pay attention to your language, shift your focus from ‘I want to know something’ to ‘what impact will my question have on our ability to reach a positive outcome for both of us.’


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Posted by Kerry-Lyn on 19/10/11 at 09:14am
Theme: Communication
Theme: Leadership
Theme: Marriage
Theme: Neurobiology
Theme: Parenting
Theme: Relationships

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