Why put people on the back-foot?

‘Why’ is such a small and yet powerful word to notice, understand and be aware of as you use it. Really, why?

The problem with why?

Well, it does two things very quickly, immediately in fact, writes Kay White, communications expert at Way Forward Solutions. Two things you want to AVOID:

  • One, it sends people straight to the word “because” which is justifying their actions/decisions and
  • Two, it closes down information-gathering in the request for “the reason”.

Let me explain.As Big Bird from Sesame Street tells us, “Questions are a great way of finding things out,” and questions are crucial to us digging deeper, connecting with people, understanding what’s going on.

The trick about “why” is the effect it has on us and, more importantly, the effect it has on those we ask the question.

What was once quite cute…

When children are growing up (and yes, weprobably did it too) it’s seen as quite cute when they ask “why?” and then you answer and then they ask “why?” again and again and, often again. As you answer them you’ll probably say “because” and “because” etc until eventually “because I say so!”.

Day to day, we’re constantly asking questions (well I hope you are, based on Big Bird’s philosophy!) to find out what’s happening, what progress there is on things, how people are, where things are etc.

Notice the difference in this situation. Imagine I was with you and asked you what you’re up to this weekend.

You might say “Oh, I’m off shopping with friends and then on to the cinema” for example. Then I say “Oh, why are you going to the cinema?”. You’ll say, “because ‘ABC film’ is out and I want to see it”.

You who justifies yourself

It’s an innocent enough question from me with, in this case, no further agenda. And yet, you’ve justified to me “why” you’re going to the cinema. The first thing you say – and the first thing most people say when you ask a question beginning with ‘Why’ is ‘because’ and then you’ve gone inside and thought about the reasonyou decided to go to the cinema.

They seek information not justification and when we justify ourselves we’re on the defensive; we’re explaining the reasons as opposed to giving information, however innocent the scenario. It’s also quite irritating to have to explain why – and here’s why. Becausewe have to take a position and the question implies some judgment behind it.

If I ask you the same question and when you tell me you’re off to the cinema with friends I say to you “Ah, what are you going to see?” or “Who are you going with” these are much less ‘on-the-spot’ questions.

Why in the workplace

Now this is the powerful bit. Take this scenario to the workplace – and (dare) ask, “why did you do that?”, or “why haven’t you done that yet?” “why are you going there now?” and you’re immediately putting the other person on the back foot, forcing them to defend their decision or their position. That’s the moment when you close the door on more information, often before you’re ready.

It’s one of the many small words that make a HUGE difference in our day-to-day conversations and directly affect the reactions and responses we get. Working with a Board of Directors recently discussing this very word, they all had an “aha” moment having realised why ‘why’ hadn’t quite worked out for them. The trick is we don’t know until we know we’ve put someone’s back up, do we?! And by then, it can be too late.

Article reproduced with permission of Kay White, a communication and mentoring expert at Way Forward Solutions. Kay shows experienced - and often frustrated - professionals how to be heard and understood. Her free eBook Power Up; Speak Up; Be Heard has already been downloaded over 4,000 times.


2nd May 2012

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