Do Tell, Don't Ask Why

Nov 20, 2017 11:44:14 AM Sarah Rymer

I just had one of those uncomfortable moments with one of my adult children.  I asked about doing something that concerned his family, got a negative nonverbal reaction, and because of time, we didn’t get it figured out.  All day long my mind has been exploring reasons why my request elicited that response.  

discussion-2884020_1920.jpgOur brains are wired to want to understand “why.”  We long for a reason that makes sense to us.  

The problem?  What makes sense to us comes out of our own perspective, our filter, our values.  So the reason that makes most sense to me comes out of the story I’ve been telling myself, the story I’ve stitched together along the way to make sense out of other events.  

I pushed myself today and came up with at least a half a dozen reasons I could have received the response I did.  Still, which response do I think is most likely?  It's the one most closely tied to my own story.  I long to understand why and then be able to defend my stance.  But here’s the thing.  I never shared the reason I was asking.  I didn’t share my “why," but I wanted his. If I’d shared my “why,” he would have had a chance to respond to that instead.  I didn’t give him that opportunity.

Sharing “why” has so many benefits and few drawbacks.  Here are some reasons to tell “why”.

Telling Why:

  • Gives a reason - so the other person doesn’t have to figure one out on their own
  • Builds ownership in the other person for your idea or vision
  • Increases clarity
  • Reduces misunderstandings
  • Lets people respond to what’s really important

Asking others “why” is much trickier. Some personalities and work environments lend themselves more to being questioned “why” than others. Generally there must be a solid basis of trust, just the right circumstances, and maybe a whole lot of luck to make asking “why” work well.  

Why?  Because…

Asking Why:

  • Makes others defensive
  • Can cause intuitive thinkers to feel foolish if they can’t give a quick logical explanation
  • Can elicit an emotional reaction that sets the situation up for argumentativeness
  • Tends to focus people on the past rather than solutions for the future

Get in the habit of sharing your own “why.”  Team members will become more engaged, family members more supportive, and you will feel more motivated and on task.  

See if you can replace asking “why” with more forward or solution-focused questions whenever possible.   Try “what” questions that draw out more without putting people on the defensive, or “how” questions which lay plans for a new future.  

Try out questions like these as an alternative to asking “why”.

  • What factors are important to you in this?
  • How might we move forward?
  • What would you like to see as an outcome?

Paying attention and taking control of how you communicate with others has long-lasting benefits.  It can save you from heartache, help you accomplish your goals, and give you deeper, more meaningful relationships.  

Who wouldn’t want that?


About the author: Katie is an IDEAS Asssociate and professional leadership coach. Her and her husband, a licensed counselor, live in North Africa and provide coaching and counseling services to expatatriots and organizations in the region. You can read more about Katie and her work at: