The Answer You Seek, to the Question You Shouldn't Ask
In life coaching school, they teach you to ask “what” questions; and never ask “why” questions. As a child, “why” was the go-to question. Why is the sky blue? Why do we eat french-fries with hamburgers? Why do cats hate dogs? Patient parents chuckle as they answer these simple “why” questions.
Fast forward to adulthood, the “why” question becomes more sinister. Why do you drink so much? Why do you pick your nose? Why do you come to work late? Instead of curiosity, there’s a touch of cynicism attached to “why” questions.
In life coaching, you want to know the answer to WHY, but you never ask this specific question. Why?
First, the “why” question is TOO OPEN. The inquisitor can use a “why” question to criticize instead of using curiosity. As you’ve seen by the brief examples above, “why” can express innocent curiosity, or malice.
Secondly, answers to the best asked “why” questions are ambiguous. If someone asks you, “Why do you drink?”, the answers can range from “because” to “I don’t know” to “My father was a jerk in my childhood.”
Answer Your Own WHY
If you’re a therapist or a coach, you may have a perfectly good reason for wanting to know the answer to your WHY question. This is the best place for you to start. If your client has a drinking problem. Maybe they’re an alcoholic or they binge drink or they cause emotional damage when they drink. As their coach, think about a few possible answers to, “Why do you drink?”
“I like the feeling I get when I drink.”
“It helps me to forget about the pain in my life.”
“It helps me become more social in awkward settings.”
“I get sick when I don’t drink.”
“Drinking is not a problem for me.”
Each of these answers allows you to ask meaty follow up questions… and eventually get to the heart of your client’s challenge with drinking. Here are better questions than why…
Tell me how you feel when you drink?
What is it about drinking that you find appealing?
Give me a picture of your feelings before, during and after a drinking binge?
What happens when you’ve gone a week without drinking?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how is drinking serving you? 1 means it’s destroying your life; and 10 means it is making your life much better than it would be otherwise.
These questions are follow up questions to the answers you wanted to get with your “why” question above. They will tend to get much clearer responses than a “why” question because they are guiding the person asking the question into a category of answer.
Solution Development & Problem Solving
I’ve covered a quick introduction to why coaches should avoid “why” questions. However, most of my clients are not coaches, but rather engineers, business professionals, and salespeople.
Let’s say that you’re an engineer and walk into a boiler room and notice a puddle of water on the floor. You can ask you guide, “Why is that puddle of water on the ground?” The guide tells you that the boiler is leaking. Thinking that “why” is a productive path of questioning, you ask, “Why don’t you fix the leak?” This is where “why” questions can get you into trouble. A defensive guide may answer,
“I don’t know.”
“We don’t get enough money to make leak repairs.”
“We’re too busy fixing other problems.”
“Our boiler mechanic is a dead beat.”
“Boilers are supposed to leak.”
“It’s not my job to fix leaks.”
These answers tend to put your conversation on what is known as a “tangent”. A tangent is a line of question or conversation that is either shut down or leads you down a path that gives you answers that are useless as far as problem identification or problem solving.
Instead of “why”, try “what” … Here are some options:
What do you think is causing the leak?
What funding is available to make leak repairs?
What amount of time does your staff have to deal with boiler leaks?
Again, these questions are follow up questions to the answers that you seek; and their answers will be more likely to steer your discussion into clarity instead of defensive, emotional responses.
The Place for WHY
I know that many who read this post will be critical. Answers to WHY questions have given them insight, they’d otherwise not found. Of course, that’s true. The key to delivering “why” questions is in context. Understand that a “why” question can be used by you as a weapon. Also, understand that answers to legitimate “why” questions take deep thought by the target of your “why” question.
Here are some tactics to using WHY questions that may help:
Wait: Wait until you have established trust with the person in your conversation to avoid defensive responses to “why” questions. Once you have trust, the person being asked will not distinguish between, “what”, “why”, “how”, or other framing questions. They’ll answer the question they think you’re asking.
Other People: Ask “why” questions about other people. If you have a client who is having difficulties with another person, ask you client, “Why do you think they do what they do?” It’s much easier for your client to ascribe motive to another person than to themselves. The answer to this question is rarely true about the other person, but it is insightful about how and why your client acts/reacts to that other person the way they do.
Time for Depth: Give the person you ask a “why” question time and space to come up with the answer. Genuine answers to “why” questions should not be answered off the cuff. Whatever answer is given to a deep question like “why” deserves deeper thought. A way to phrase the drinking question is, “All of us who drink have different causes that prompt us to drink. I’d like you to take a day or two and think about coming up with an answer to ‘Why do you drink?’”
Clearly, there are other ways to use a “why” question productively if you can navigate around the two problems of exposing your emotion and criticism; or being too ambiguous.
About me. I have been actively engaged in the energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy conservation industry all my professional career from 1987 until now. I was a licensed Professional Engineering in six states and a Certified Energy Manager (CEM). I worked as a sales executive, energy engineer, sales manager, and entrepreneur. I started, grew, and sold my own Energy Service Company (ESCo) called Ennovate Corporation (1997 to 2013). I am now a certified professional business coach for business owners, engineers, and business development executives.