Whilst I was training to become an Executive Coach, one of my big ‘a-ha’ moments was to discover that asking ‘why’ when trying to get deeper into a discussion was completely the wrong thing to do. It was a real revelation to me. I always ask ‘why?’ whenever I’m trying to find out more. Whilst my intention is positive, I learnt that simply asking why can have a negative effect.
The person hearing it can think:
a) you’re passing judgement on what I said or done.
b) you’re criticising what I’ve said or done.
As a consequence, the person on the receiving end can feel defensive and you aren’t able to get a deeper understanding. Either they clam up and simply respond ‘I don’t know’. Or, they can go on the offensive and feel they have to defend or justify themselves. Unintentionally, it can create a confrontational encounter.
So what do you do instead? Think of alternative ways of asking why without using the word itself. Try to use a range of open questions. For example:
‘How did you come to that decision?’
‘What lead up to this?’
‘What influenced you?’
‘Can you explain to me what happened?’
‘Are you able to provide some more of the background’
Then simply probe gently on what they’ve said.
‘And then what happened…’
‘How did that make you feel..’
This way, the person you’re talking to will be more likely to open up and not feel they’re being criticised or judged.
I find that occasionally I do slip into asking the ‘why’ question, through my bad habits or my impatience. In this case, I correct yourself and re-phrase the question. Alternatively I just roll with it. If you’ve built upon enough rapport with the person you’re talking to, they’ll still be open and expansive. You may be able to get away with it once. Just don’t keep repeating it.
So to summarise
If you’re interviewing, coaching someone or simply having an informal chat, try to avoid asking ‘why’? whenever you’re trying to get a deeper understanding. Instead use alternative open questions and follow up on what’s being said with probing questions. That way the person will not feel judged or criticised. Instead they’ll be more relaxed and forthcoming and you’ll get more out of the conversation.