Why Not To Ask Why!

1 May 2007

Why Not To Ask Why!

Have you ever noticed the reaction?

When you ask children – or adults for that matter – ‘why’ they’ve made a mistake or done something a particular way, have you noticed their responses?

Why Not To Ask Why

They will often become defensive about it, or feel they have to justify their behaviour. The following case study illustrates this perfectly – as well as giving you tips to avoid defensive reactions!

Jane was having some issues with one of her team

Joe hadn’t given her his report on time. On the day she was writing her own report she still didn’t have it. With her own deadline approaching fast and no sign of Joe or his report, she invited him to her office to find out what was going on.

The exploding employee

Jane told me that when she’d asked him why he hadn’t presented his report to her in the agreed time frame, Joe had ‘exploded’ and ‘gone for the jugular’. While this created interesting and amusing images in my own mind, I really wanted to explore what her behaviour had been in the whole interaction, to elicit such a strong response from Joe.

Annoyed and frustrated

Jane admitted that she was annoyed before she’d called Joe to her office. She was frustrated because she knew she would have to rush to complete her own report. So Joe arrived at her office and she had him sit down. Then she said to him, ‘Joe, why didn’t you get your report to me on time?’

Seems a reasonable question you might think.

Jane certainly thought it was. So was somewhat shocked and stunned by the response she received.

‘Because I’ve been off sick for 3 days! My computer crashed in the middle of doing the report! And by the time I got someone in I.T. to fix it I found I’d lost all the information and had to start again!’ She described Joe as being absolutely venomous towards her. So much so that she was completely lost for words for a few seconds. When she’d recomposed herself, she told Joe that she was upset by his response and asked him why he’d overreacted!

Let’s just review Joe’s situation for a moment.

He’d had 3 days sick leave which probably meant he was behind his normal schedule to start with. Then, in the middle of compiling his report his computer had crashed and then it had taken some time to get it fixed. After these setbacks, he’d found the work he’d put into the report had been lost. Then, to top it off he was asked, in a very accusing tone of voice, why he hadn’t met the deadline.

There’s something about that word…

You see there’s something about that word WHY that can be really upsetting. And sometimes explanations are not as effective as real life experiences. So without explaining this to my client I said to her in the same accusing tone, ‘Why were you speechless?’

I got just the response I was expecting

“Why! Why? Because he hadn’t met the deadline and then he’d shouted at me like I was the problem!” she said, raising her voice.
“What, like you’re doing to me?” I queried. (I know – just a bit provocative!)

She was once again speechless

“Notice how you feel right now,” I added. “And notice what happened inside you when I asked you why you were speechless.”
“I was on the back foot. I felt like you’d pushed me into a corner, like I had to justify myself.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what can happen when you ask someone why. Especially if there’s a bit of a edge to your voice when you ask it. You feel like you’ve got to justify your actions.”

‘Why?’ doesn’t move things forward

“The thing to notice is that the response you receive in response to your why question doesn’t really give you any more insight into what caused the problem. Just more reasons for it occurring in the first place. It kind of cements the persons justification for their behaviour, rather than exploring it.”

“So, what else could I have said? I thought it was a reasonable question.”

“It is a reasonable question. I suppose the key thing is whether you’re getting the responses you want from the other person. In Joe’s case you got an unexpected response.” I continued.

Ask a different question

“Maybe, if you’d asked a different question you would have received a different answer. Likewise, having another way of approaching Joe might have made a difference to how he responded. You told me that he normally gets his reports in on time, so that might have been a clue that all was not well. If you think about Joe and how he might have been feeling at the time, does that give you some other ideas about how to approach him?”

“I’d been so busy, I hadn’t even had time to go and check on how he was feeling after having time off. He would have known that I could have escalated getting his computer fixed, but I think maybe he saw how busy I was and he didn’t want to bother me with it. I think maybe everything just got on top of him, especially as he hadn’t been very well. Hmm, my getting annoyed and asking him why he hadn’t done the report was like the last straw! And you’re right, I didn’t get any constructive answers – just a whole lot of excuses!”

Other approaches

“So what are some other ways you could approach this in future, so you get better responses from your team?”

“Well, in hindsight, I should have recognised that Joe would be behind, because of his being off sick, and checked in with him when he got back. The fact I hadn’t done that might have made him think I didn’t care. I could have checked to see if he needed help, or at least let him know to come to me if he did.”

“O.K. Those are good insights. So let’s say you still didn’t do any of those things. How could you perhaps have asked questions which would have maintained the relationship you had with Joe?”

“I could have realised that Joe would have been upset at not being able to get his report in on time. Maybe I could have asked him what led to him not getting his report done – and got rid of the snotty tone!”

“Yes, any other ideas?”

“Maybe I could have told him that I knew something must have happened for him to have missed the reporting deadline. and that I wanted to find out what it was so we could avoid it in the future?”

“Great! That’s avoiding dredging up the past. What else?” (There are always plenty of ways to resolve an issue. I believe that the more ways a client can generate for resolving an issue, the more resourceful they’ll be in similar situations in the future.)

“God, you’re a hard task master!”

“That’s right – that’s one of the things you pay me for! Most people don’t deliberately do things to upset other people. Generally they were expecting a different outcome. It’s only after the event, and with hindsight that anyone can re-evaluate something that’s gone awry. Making mistakes is one of the ways we learn. Surely if someone has made a genuine mistake all you really want is to know is that they’ve learned something, which means they won’t make the same mistake again?”

“OK I could ask Joe what he learned and what he’s going to change in the future?”

“Good, what else?”

“So, what about if I choose some of the other question words like how, what, who, when, where? Such as, ‘How can we make sure it’s on time in future?'”

“That’s good. What else?”

“Actually, I think that if I’d gone to his desk or met him in a meeting room over a coffee, it wouldn’t have seemed like such a big deal as ‘summoning’ him to my office. He was probably on the back foot just from me doing that.”

“You’re having some great insights about this. Any other things you can think of?”

“Yes, I should make sure I’m in the right frame of mind to address the issue in a positive way. Being calm and perhaps curious, rather than uptight, annoyed and stressed.”

“Excellent! So now it sounds like you’ve got lots of new options for dealing with this and perhaps other challenges in the future. So what’s the next step you’re going to take in this respect?”

“As soon as I get back to work I’m going to invite Joe for a coffee and apologise. I want to get our relationship back on an even keel. I also want to check on his health and show him that I do really care about him as a person. Then I’m going to do the same with each member of my team – I’ve been so caught up in my own little world and being ‘busy and important’ I feel I’ve neglected them. I really would like to avoid using that why word as well! It’s going to take some doing though. It always comes so easily doesn’t it?”

I had to admit the truth in that

‘Why’ is often the first question that springs to mind. But think about this logically…

If someone knew WHY they’d made the mistake they wouldn’t have made it in the first place!

You’ll get much more pertinent information if you ask, “What lead you to…?” or “How did it happen that…?” Notice how the response will be much more useful and meaningful.

  • The word ‘why?’, especially if used in an accusatory tone often produces a defensive response.
  • Defensive responses give you little information that’s useful, only a justification for what happened.
  • Try rephrasing your question using how, what, when, etc.
  • Soften your tone as you ask a question.
  • Think through a situation before asking questions to determine what ‘might’ be going on for the other person.
Want to learn how to ask better questions?

How To Use Quirky Questions To Avoid Blaming & Irritation

The Power Of Personal Change