Sometimes “Why?” Is the Wrong Question
Open Vs Closed Conversations
Asking “Why?” Is Natural. Sometimes It’s the Wrong Question.
This is a trick, but it works: don’t ask “why?”. I know — we love to ask “why?”. It’s the most fundamental of questions, the one that gets us to the bottom of things, the root. If we don’t know “why”, then we don’t know what we’re doing.
So when we want to understand the reasons behind the behavior of a person, or team at work, we naturally ask: “why did that happen?”, “why is the report late?”, “why is the release buggy?”, “why is your team leaving early?”.
The problem is that “why?” asks for a definitive answer, a result — it’s a challenge, not an invitation. The other person is now immediately on the defensive, having to produce the one true response and take ownership for it.
And often the question is hiding an accusation. “Why is the release buggy?” may be asked out of genuine curiosity, but is more likely asked with frustration and some heat. It is partly a question, and partly a statement: “I am irritated that the release is buggy. I want you to take responsibility for it. I want you to be contrite”.
So the conversation is likely to stall. The response to the “why” question will be guarded, incomplete. You will pick holes in it. The holes will be defended. Neither of your goals — expressing your emotional response, and genuinely understanding what happened and what can be learned — will be met.
Open Questions: Asking “What?”
An Open Question is an invitation to a genuine conversation. It asks for a response which widens the conversation and increases the likelihood of collaboration. It has the feel of genuine curiosity.
“What caused the release to be buggy?” is almost the same question as “Why is the release buggy?”, but it has a different sense to the person receiving it. They are being invited to be a partner in an investigation, not challenged to produce the one true answer. The response is likely to be less defensive and more nuanced — a better basis for a real conversation.
Questions that start with “What?” have this property.
“What were the reasons for…?” rather than “Why did you…?”
“What is causing the reports to be late?” rather than “Why are the reports late?”
“What do you think is going on with the team?” rather than “Why are the team leaving early?”
“What is on your mind right now?” rather than “Why are you so distracted?”
Asking “What?” — A Practice
We are very wedded to asking “why?”. And for good reason — it promotes creativity, analysis and excellence in the right context.
Asking “What?” takes practice, which means, as with all practice, you may fumble, and you’ll need to take it slowly. A couple of suggestions:
- take it slowly. Don’t rush to ask your questions.
- watch your intention. Decide to be curious, to genuinely seek answers
- start by saying “What…” and then wait for the rest of the question to emerge. It will. Trust yourself.
- if the purpose of the conversation is, in fact, to express irritation or disappointment, do that — don’t use your questions to hide your feedback
Open (Divergent) Vs Closed (Convergent) Conversations
Asking “why” almost always starts the defensive business of story telling, of shielding. “Why” promotes a “closed” conversation.
Open conversations build relationship, allow discovery and trust. A conversation that goes to “why” will go to a tennis match of explanations and further interrogation.
Consciously Choosing The Type of Conversation
Divergent, open conversations when: you are coaching, establishing and building relationships, creating consensus, growing a culture of inclusion. If you are leading a group, most of your conversations will ideally be divergent and open.
Yes, they take a little longer, and need practice to make them efficient, but over time you will be a much more inclusive, trusted leader as a result.
Convergent, closed conversations when: you want to get an analysis completely clear, figuring out a technical issue, forcing clarity of thinking, making a point of executional excellence.
Closed conversations are sharp tools — they get the job done, but they need to be used carefully, sparingly and for the right reasons.
Choose your tools well!