As a writer, marketer and community builder I've spent most of my professional life centered around the questions of Who, What, When, Where, How and Why. When I’m working with clients one of my favorite questions to lob at them that is “Why is that important?” or it’s twin, “Why does that matter?” Of course I liberally use other questions like “What do you want to accomplish?” or “How will this benefit you or your business?” but Why is a critical one. Given this you must wonder how on this planet I came up with the title for this blog post.
See, Why can actually be a very tricky word.
When Using Why Works
One of the first words a young child learns is invariably “Why?” This is a critical word for a wee one trying to make sense of a unfamiliar world even when they don’t understand that there is a world. When we’re sincerely looking for information Why can be one of the most useful conduits available to us. This very direct searching question can bore a hole through any piece of emotional or mental concrete to help you get to the core of something.
Answering the Whys are critical when it comes to building a business, a product or a life. This sort of Why question can uncover extremely useful information especially when confronted with a decision point. For example, if you’re building an app and you need to decide what the next features are going to be then asking “Why are we building this? Why will people use it over other apps?” is highly appropriate. If you want to decide what to do next with your career there are other apropos Why questions like “Why do I get out of bed in the morning? What excites me?” These are exceptionally good ways to use this power adverb.
The Problem Of Using Why In Feedback
There are times when asking Why is a much more tricky proposition. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in situations where things may not be going quite as you hoped or when direct feedback is needed.
When I trained to become an Executive Coach one of the things I was told to eliminate from my vocabulary was the question Why. The reasoning was that it would send someone into a different part of their brain where answers were harder to access. As coached more and more people over the next 10 years I found another reason to take care with the word Why. This type of question can have a distinctly critical feel to it setting people on a much more self-critical path of thinking when not applied appropriately.
“Why aren’t you further with your goals?”
"Why aren’t you making more money?”
“Why did you do that?"
Even without emoticons or a tone of voice providing cues you just sense the judgement inherent in these questions right? While these questions may get directly at the source of friction within a person or a business they are also more likely to bring in the shame factor. Sometimes they’re not even really questions–more statements of fact aimed at blasting, humiliating or venting at the offending party–whether we aim them at ourselves or someone else. This kind of judgment has a way of wrapping its tendrils around a person's heart shutting off the flow. There are many things I don’t know but I do know that Shame is one of the least productive emotions out there. It’s one to be avoided at all costs. Often adopting this word as a form of judgment unnecessary drama. You don't need more of that now do you?
Know When & How to Use This Power Adverb
In some cases Why can be used effectively along with a tone that moves it more into the productive rather than the shame territory. When talking with others this is most easily and effectively achieved in person where a person can more readily feel, see and understand your tone. In written word take care when asking a question with a Why in it.
And sometimes really it’s about choosing a different word. To take the potential stinging shame that can accompany the big Why. To open someone up to what might be vulnerable questions rather than slamming their ego shut try one of the other power W’s.
“How can you achieve more of your goals?”
“What can you do to make more money?”
“Help me understand what motivates you."
This approach leads to a much more expansive conversation that asks the person to reflect and plumb the depths of their psyche for new insights that moves them much closer to their goals. People being happier, fulfilling long-held dreams, developing novel ideas that just might change the world–that’s what you want right?
If you want to be powerful in your interactions with others you must know when and how to use this power word.
Use it wisely.