Why not ask “Why?”

Tale of the Day:
Understanding “why”

Today I want to focus on a common word that we use a lot, but which can be very misleading and unhelpful. The word is “why.” When I was teaching in an NLP Practitioner Training last summer, a participant in the training—who was in the midst of a difficult divorce at the time—shared a lovely example illustrating how “why” can easily get us into trouble.

“My 5 1/2 year old daughter has been saying, ‘I feel lonely and I don’t feel loved.’ At first I was saying, ‘But why? Mommy loves you and Mommy does this and this etcetera… etcetera…’ And then I saw that ‘why’ wasn’t eliciting any response from her; it sort of shut her down. So I’m thinking, what can I do? So I said, OK, ‘How can I help you feel better? Or, ‘How can I help you feel more loved and not so alone?’ My daughter said, ‘I just want you to hold me, kiss me, and hug me.’ OK! So I did just that.”

Problem solved.

This is a lovely example of how simple some problems are, as long as we know the right questions to ask. So what are the principles at play? Why is “why” an unhelpful question to ask in this context, and how is “how” a helpful one?

The question “how” gathers specific information about the experience that underlies the daughter’s words. The question, “How can I help you feel more loved and not so alone?” invites the daughter to specify the vague process words “loved” and “lonely,” letting Mom know what specific actions equal “love” and “non-loneliness” to her daughter: holding, kissing, and hugging. Without this specific information, Mom could have continued doing “this and this etcetera…” and her daughter still wouldn’t have had the experience of holding, kissing, and hugging that demonstrates love. Mom could have attempted countless new things she thought would demonstrate more love to her daughter (quite possibly at great expense), and her daughter would still feel just as lonely and un-loved. In this case the question ‘how’ was all that was needed.

In contrast “why” is a very general question, inviting the person to come up with reasons or causes or purposes, which can be difficult to answer. Imagine you’re the daughter saying, “I don’t feel loved,” and your Mom responds by saying, “But why?” If I imagine myself as a five-and-a-half-year-old, I also shut down when confronted with this question. I don’t know why I don’t feel loved, I just know that I don’t feel it. Coming up with a “why” is much too open-ended and difficult to answer. But when my Mom asks me how she can help me feel loved, that is specific enough that ideas immediately spring to my mind—hug me, kiss me, and hold me! Even as an adult it can be challenging to answer the question “why.” “I don’t know why I feel this way,” or “I don’t know why I did that,” are phrases I’ve often heard from friends and clients, and certainly said myself. Philosophy and religion are devoted to answering various aspects of the question “why,” and predictably the answers vary widely! Whether five years old or fifty years old, “why” is a tough question to answer, and most of the time we’re better off not trying.

Explaining why problems are the way they are is not only difficult and time-consuming, it also keeps us focused on the problem state. This can have the effect of solidifying our problems in place, not only because it keeps our attention on “what’s wrong,” but also because now we have justifications and reasons for our problem’s existence. When Mom asked her daughter, “How can I help you feel more loved?” she did the opposite of this, elegantly guiding her daughter from the problem-state “I don’t feel loved” to a solution state in the future, “How can I help you to have what you want?”

In addition, ‘why’ can imply blame even if that was never the speaker’s intention. Though Mom was simply trying to understand her daughter, Mom’s question “Why don’t you feel loved when mommy does this and this and this…?” can feel like judgment or blame to the child, particularly if the mother’s voice tone is annoyed or exasperated. This can elicit guilt: “Gosh, why don’t I feel loved when she does all those things for me? Maybe there’s something wrong with me.” Or it might elicit defensiveness/anger, “Why are you expecting me to feel loved when I don’t!”

Let’s look at this using another example: Imagine your partner or friend or co-worker accidentally starts a fire in the microwave again because they forgot to remove their metal spoon, and you say, “Why did you forget your spoon in the microwave again?” Now step into the shoes of the other person and imagine being confronted with this question. Even if asked in a neutral voice tone, I’m likely to either respond defensively: “Nobody’s perfect!” or feel guilty: “I’m sorry, I screwed up again,” or even worse, “I’m such a screw-up!” This kind of response diverts my attention away from possible solutions and into feelings of defensiveness or failure, which are neither fun nor useful for problem-solving.

In summary:

  • “Why” is vague
  • It focuses us on the problem
  • It tends to elicit answers that hold the problem in place
  • It can be taken as blame or judgment

Finally, here’s one more way I’ve noticed “why” getting people into trouble. When we say, “Why did you do X?!” if it’s in an angry or frustrated tone of voice, usually we aren’t really interested in the answer to that question—we don’t want to hear a bunch of justifications. Instead there’s usually something we want to express. If a spouse is angry or frustrated and says, “Why did you get home so late!” they usually have something they want to communicate, such as, “You came home a lot later than planned, and this made things really difficult for me. I was planning on you taking over with the kids so I could get ready for my evening meeting.” With the microwave example, asking, “Why did you forget your spoon in the microwave again?” could really be translated into something like, “I’m concerned about our safety and want to make sure no fires get started in the building.” So when you find yourself about to use “why” you may want to ask yourself, “Is there something I want to say here? Am I expressing my needs and goals clearly?”

Learning how it happened that one’s spouse came home late, or one’s roommate left the spoon in the microwave, may be a useful part of the discussion. This is much more specific than asking “why” and it works the best in the context of understanding each person’s wants and needs. With this information we can then move away from the problem and toward future planning and solutions. In the case of the Mom and daughter example above, it worked to move straight to future solutions with the question, “How can I help you feel more loved?”

In this blog post I’ve focused on what can happen when we ask others “why.” In my next blog post I’ll show how these principles play out when we ask “why” of ourselves.

Click here to find out more about NLP: The Next Generation Practitioner Training, designed and taught by Mark Andreas, evolved from the original NLP practitioner training manuals created by Steve and Connirae Andreas.

Tool of the Day:

Paraphrasing Yoda, “Say or say not—there is no why.”

Any time you notice yourself about to ask someone “why” in the context of a problem or difficulty, stop and ask yourself: 1) “Do I want to know the answer to this question?” or 2) “Am I really wanting to communicate about my own needs or desires?”

1) If you DO want to know the answer to the question, then change “why” to “how” to get more specific information. “How did it happen that….” This is just a beginning—there’s much more to it than this, such as how to best shift from problem state in the past, to solution state in the future—but see how much you learn just from this one change.

2) If you realize that you have something to say about your own needs or desires, instead of asking “why” first ask, “Are you open to hearing about something that’s important to me?” Most people will say yes to this question, and thus be receptive to what you have to say next (even if they wouldn’t have been a moment ago). If someone says “no,” ask when would work for them.

Sign up for a session with Mark at www.markandreas.com or call 303-810-9611 for a free 15-minute consult.

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