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‘Why’ often unhelpful

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Something which I’ve noticed recently in particular when interviewing people but also in some other situations is that frequently posing a question which begins with ‘why’ results in quite a defensive response.

While discussing this with Priyank he pointed out that asking a question in this way can often be construed as a criticism of the idea being questioned.

Admittedly it is often the case that I’m questioning something which has been done differently than what I might have done but I’m still curious as to the reasoning behind it.

Unfortunately this style of questioning often stops any reasonable discussion from happening which isn’t my intent.

I’ve been reading Sleight of Mouth recently which suggests the following:

Why questions, for instance, often presuppose other judgments, which can lead back into conflict or disagreement.

In general, ‘how’ questions are most effective for refocusing on an outcome frame or feedback frame.

William Noonan has a similar thing to say in Discussing the Undiscussable:

Quality inquiries generally don’t use Why questions because such queries tend to make listeners feel pressured to prove their point or justify their position.

Asking questions starting with “What,” “Where,” and “How” elicit more descriptive responses, and result in more concrete information.

To give a recent example, in India people are currently collecting feedback and one part of it requires the feedback giver to rank the other person in terms of how well they ‘performed’ compared to what the feedback giver expected.

I asked why it was necessary to do that and didn’t really manage to discover the intention very successfully.

Priyank suggested that I might have been more successful if I had asked ‘what’ the intention of ranking the person was instead.

Hopefully I’ll remember that the next time I want to inquire about something but at the moment the ‘why’ question is the one that comes to the fore when I want to do that.

I don’t think it is necessary to use what is a bit of a convoluted style of communication with everyone.

A lot of the people I’ve worked with are quite comfortable with ‘why’ questions being thrown around and I think this style of inquiry is more acceptable when you have trust with the other person.

If the conversation isn’t about something which could be construed as criticism of either person then asking ‘why’ seems to be fine as well.


From http://www.markhneedham.com/blog/2011/02/03/why-often-unhelpful/

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