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#5 - "Why" oh Why?

At lunch time, I bumped into two managers who are also friends and colleagues. An impromptu conversation started with one of them about her aspirations to write a book.  She shared with me that she was not started writing, although this was a goal close to her heart. I asked her: “What is in the way of you reaching for your goal?” She started to answer and then stopped, at a loss for a logical explanation. We talked of getting together at a later time for a one-on-one coaching conversation, when she was ready to explore that less than logical terrain.

In the meantime, her colleague was watching this interaction closely, and a light bulb went on. She said that she now understood why her employees got on the defensive when she asked the question “Why?” She quickly noticed the difference in her friend’s response to “What is in the way?”: no defensiveness, only a pause and a willingness to explore. She also noticed that judgment was absent from the initial question, so no justification was required, only a thoughtful consideration of possible blockages to success.

“Why are you late?”, “ Why did you miss this deadline?”, “Why is this process not working?”. Aren’t you feeling anxious just reading these questions? I know I am.  These inquiries trigger alarm bells in most of us. ‘Why’ seems like an offense that requires a defense, and most of us can’t think properly when ‘Why’ is in the air!

There are some valid applications of the ‘Why’ question. For example, in a question like “Why is it important for you to make this change? It’s important because….” In this situation, ‘Why’ is validating the speaker, and the importance of the change.  Still, ‘Why’ is a question to handle with the utmost care.

The three of us then talked more about how to ask powerful questions, from a leader to a follower, questions to encourage exploration and foster empowerment, such as: “What could help you move in the direction of…?” “What has worked for you in the past?”, “A year from now, what do you want to have accomplished?”  Notice that the ‘Why’ question is petty such avoided. You may also notice that the wording of the ‘What’ question is neural and opinion free. In fact, it’s important that the ‘What’ question be a supportive one in order to lead to a genuine conversation.

This 15 minute lunchtime encounter reminded me of how little time it takes to encourage growth in another human being, and how one word can have us scurrying for protection. Our choice of words is indeed powerful. 

Try this for 7 days:  Whenever you are about to ask ‘Why’, at work and at home, deliberately start with ‘What’.  And then take note of three things: 
  • What have you noticed about your ability to ask the ‘What’ question?
  • How does it change your style of questioning?
  • What kind of response did you get?
Let me know about your experience with switching from ‘Why’ to ‘What’. I look forward to reading your responses.

 
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