Why Not to Ask Why

I don’t know if this has ever happened to you…

  • Have you ever watched an engaging meeting, full of progress, turn on a dime to being consumed with defensiveness, frustration, and disengagement?
  • Have you ever noticed that during an otherwise civil discussion, the conversation quickly turned hostile and contentious?

When you look back on those events it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint what happened. Yet, often times, I’ve seen this occur because of one word… “Why?”

  • Why did you do that?
  • Why can’t we just…?
  • Why is this so difficult?
  • Why are we wasting our time on this again?

On the Defensive

To many folks, “why” questions trigger their defense mechanisms. They may hear why as questioning their intelligence, their skills, their judgment, or their integrity. This will be perceived by their brain as a threat, and trigger an amygdala hijack. Very little if anything productive will take place after this occurs.

The amygdala will cause their mind and body to react as if they are being attacked by a bear. When this fight, flight or freeze reaction occurs, the meeting or discussion will quickly go off track. How do you recognize this? They will typically want to run away or start punching people.

  • Fight: there will be disagreement escalating to disparagement.
  • Flight: there will be disengagement and maybe even dismantlement.
  • Freeze: there will be disappointment and discouragement

Better Alternatives

So what are your alternatives? Why don’t you think of some? Why are you wanting me to answer this for you?

Okay, I’m just teasing you. What are some alternatives to the four questions above (respectively).

  • What went into making that decision? From what perspectives were you looking at this?
  • Would you be open to other options? What if…?
  • Is it possible to simplify this process? If we could make this more efficient, where would we start?
  • What aspects of this are most valuable? Is there an important perspective that we’re missing? How can we best move this forward? If we were able to address that concern, what would we do next?

Can you sense the difference? You’re essentially asking why, but in a way that keeps their amygdala at bay and out of the picture. This will allow you to avoid the disagreement disparagement, disengagement, dismantlement, disappointment, and discouragement. It will lead to greater understanding and connections which, in turn, leads to greater buy-in, cooperation, and productivity. And, why wouldn’t you want that? 🙂

Please note: Why questions can be great for soliciting information but you can often do the same by asking the question without the why. If you do use why, be mindful of the level of trust between you and the person you are asking. The more trust, the less chance of the person becoming defensive and the greater chance of a meaningful discussion.

If you’d like to leave a comment, click here. I’d love to hear from you.


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 I would love to hear what you think about this edition of Breaking Free.  Please leave your comments below.



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