What is it about the word why that makes people so defensive? Perhaps it’s because we believe we have to defend our position. Perhaps it’s because of the way it is sometimes said with a certain tone. Or maybe it’s because we find it irritating when our small kids relentlessly use this word.
I remember the first time my coach shared the problem of the why question with me. My eyes opened wide and I felt as if I had just been let in on a big leadership secret. I knew this new knowledge would help catapult my communication effectiveness to the next level.
I spent several months eradicating the word why from my language, and it did help. Challenging conversations were, well, less challenging.
Yet in certain situations, something was missing. I didn’t feel as though I was getting to the root of the difficulties some clients were facing. It wasn’t until I read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, Edward Deci’s, Why We Do What We Do and, finally, Susan Fowler’s Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work—and What Does that I realized what the problem was.
The very reason we refrain from asking why questions is also the reason they can be so powerful: they engage both emotional and cognitive levels in a way that other questions don’t. Used carefully and appropriately, why questions can help clients get unstuck and cause a shift by identifying basic psychological needs of Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence.
When appropriate, here are five ways to mindfully use a why question:
- When a person is stuck and helplessly procrastinating or placing obstacles in the way, ask a question such as Why do you think you’re holding on to the status quo? Use a caring, nonjudgmental tone.
- Be prepared to ask a question starting with why up to five times. This is known as the Power of Why technique, which is helpfully described in Fowler’s book.
- Listen for ways to connect values to the desired end state. Ask clients how they can reframe the situation so values remain intact.
- Listen for psychological needs being undermined. Ask clients how they could be reconnected in a different way. For example, if the quarterly sales meeting has been canceled due to cost saving and your client is complaining about that lack of connection, ask how else they might get that relatedness with colleagues.
- Finally, ask permission to use the Power of Why. This helps take out any feeling of being judged the client might have.
I don’t often use why in my everyday language—but when I do, I use it thoughtfully and mindfully to open up new possibilities. As a coach, consider whether a why question might open up new possibilities for you as well.
About the Author
Judith Donin is a Senior Consulting Partner and Professional Services Mentor for North America with The Ken Blanchard Companies. You can read Judith’s posts as a part of Coaching Tuesday here at Blanchard LeaderChat for ideas, research, and inspirations from the world of executive coaching.
9 thoughts on “Coaching Blasphemy? Reconsidering the WHY Question”
Well said Judith.
You make some excellent and useful ideas, Judith. When coaching in the Spanish language, we rarely have that dilemma because there are two forms of “Why?”: ¿Por qué? (past and causal oriented) and ¿Para qué (present and future oriented regarding intentions and desires?). I rarely use the former. When coaching in English I still generally prefer (with some notable exceptions in extreme cases) to reframe the question to avoid “why”, for example, in your point #1: “What are you gaining for yourself by holding on….”
Thank you for your insight Gilbert – how I wish the English language had the equivalent ?Pare qué ? Present and future intentions and desires is exactly what I was referencing. Intention is the ‘what’ (cognitive) and the desires is the ‘why’ (the heart or feeling). Thank you so much!
Nice Article Judith! Thank you – passing it on!
Excellent, thoughtful and useful tips. Have shared widely
In coaching, it is surely good to be ‘Not-knowing’ and ‘Curious’ position and enquire ‘why’ without using the word/synonyms thereof. Any other ‘Powerful Question’ would be recommended, without pushing coachee with a ‘why’! Simon Sinek’s context is quite different from a coaching interaction. Having developed trust, coach may be tempted to go beyond these constraints of words & phrases. But it still helps to stay away from the temptations, as a coaching habit?!
thank you for your thoughtful response and one I understand as it was a position I took before testing “The Power of Why” technique in Susan Fowler’s book. Indeed “Why” is often asked from a judging standpoint. When it is used (carefully) from a ‘not-knowing’ and ‘curious’ place, I was amazed at the results. I agree this word “Why” has to be used extremely carefully or trust can be broken.
Precisely. It is, and has always been, possible for coaches to quickly establish a foundation of trust, and to use the “why” question from a totally encouraging place, and to further engage productively in the dialogue from the discovery emerging into the conversation from there. Just today I did such at the behest of the coach of two senior college rugby players who were having game confidence concerns. Carefully using the ‘why’ question in the right place produced a completely new realisation, perspective, and outcome and tool set for each of these two athletes. The issue has never been with the simple and innocent ‘why?’ question. It has always been with the style and accent in which the question is asked. Judith, and Susan, are nailing it for us. Thanks both. Malcolm S, NZ
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