At lunchtime one day, I bumped into two managers who are also friends of mine. An impromptu conversation started with one of them about her longstanding intention of writing a book. Although this was a goal near and dear to her heart, she hadn’t been able to start. I asked her: “What is in the way of reaching for your goal?” She answered this question by honestly sharing several of her fears.

While we continued our conversation, her colleague was listening closely and a light bulb went on. Now she got why her employees were often on the defensive with her. She was asking them the wrong questions: “Why don’t the numbers add up?” or “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

She noticed that her friend’s response to my question “What is in the way…?” was not at all defensive. On the contrary, the question invited more exploration.

‘Why’ versus ‘what’: and the winner is…

“Why did you miss this deadline?”
“Why is this process not working?”
“Why are you late?”

Are you feeling anxious just reading this list? I know I am. ‘Why’ questions trigger alarm bells in most of us. It’s as if you’re being chastised by our least favorite school teacher. When ‘Why’ is in the air we’re either running for the hills, or getting ready to duke it out!

The three of us then talked more about how to ask powerful questions that encourage exploration and empowerment.

“What could help you move in your chosen direction?”
“What has worked for you in the past?”
“What would you like to accomplish a year from now?”

Notice that the ‘Why’ question is avoided altogether. You may also notice that the ‘What’ question is lighter and free of judgment, leaving ample room for a genuine conversation. It’s amazing how changing one word can make all the difference in the world.

Your ‘why’ to ‘what’ 7-day challenge

For the next 7 days, whenever you’re about to ask a ‘why’ question at work or at home, deliberately start with the word ‘what’ instead. Then take a mental note of 3 things:

  • How did your question change when using ‘what’ instead of ‘why’?
  • What were some of your challenges with making that switch?
  • What kind of response did you get from the other person?

Let me know about your experience with making the switch from ‘Why’ to ‘What’. I look forward to reading your responses.

2 thoughts on “How To Ask Better Questions by Switching From ‘Why’ To ‘What’ (And Why it’s Important)”

  1. I tried it right away on my “chronically-disorganized” assistant who was saying that she felt so stressed out because of all the competing demands on her time. I asked: “What do you think would help make it easier for you.” Instead of continuing to complain, she actually came up with a couple of suggestions, including one for me! I responded: “Well that’s something I can do, for sure!” So… instead of both feeling frustrated as usual, we both felt better, and came away with a bit of a new game plan for our way of working together.

    1. Dominique Dennery

      Wonderful! What a great example of the power of an open question. Thank you Carole for sharing with other managers.

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