Ask ‘Why?’ with skill

I have a confession to make. When I was younger, still in single figures, I would drive my mum crazy with an endless stream of questions, often starting (and ending) with ‘why?’. I wasn’t deliberately trying to irritate, I just wanted to know, and thought my parents knew everything. I seldom got a satisfactory response but plenty of unsatisfactory ones!

I’m very fond of ‘why’ – after all, it’s an old childhood friend – but I’ve noticed in my professional life that it’s a poorer cousin to ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘when’ and even ‘where’.

Why is that?

Broadly speaking these words focus on shaping, doing and delivering, which naturally get the attention and are easier to grasp. If you think of a funnel shape, then ‘why’ is at the wide-end and the others help to narrow. Asking ‘why’ in the first place is crucial to opening the way to explore, chart and define.

A double-edged sword

I find ‘why’ empowering. It makes me think, forces me to face issues, helps me to see the wider picture, and allows for different possibilities that would otherwise be missed.

However, there is a darker side. Asking ‘why’ can paralyse, disrupt, confuse, be an unwelcome challenge (even if the intention is innocent), and can surface mistakes or underlying issues such as tensions or hostilities.

Rather than ‘use with care’, I say ‘use with skill’. After all, it is a skill to ask good questions and manage the responses in order to move forwards positively!

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