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Nix the “Why” Questions

why question

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

More questions does not always lead to better communication. This is especially true when communication is peppered with “why did you” or “why didn’t you” questions...

  • “Why did you make such an obvious mistake?”
  • “Why didn’t you put your keys back where they belong?”

These are bogus questions masquerading as a request for understanding. They are, in reality, blame statements similar to an exasperated parent asking a kid: “Why is your room such a mess?” Do you know a parent in the history of the universe that has ever received an enlightening explanation to that question?

‘Why’ questions put people on the defensive. They demand a justification for what they did or didn’t do. They imply blame. The one who asks the question is the authority; the one who is being asked is the defender. Typical explanations offered are far from satisfying or enlightening: a shrug of the shoulders; “I dunno”; “It wasn’t me”; or “It just happened.”

So, instead of frustrating yourself by asking such questions, imagine how much more satisfying it could be if you learned better ways of communicating. Here are three:

1. Make a statement rather than ask a question.

  • Statements can be empathetic, such as: “You’ve got so much on your plate; I know you’re busy but I definitely need your answer by Friday.”
  • Statements can be solution-oriented, such as: “It’d be easier for you to find your keys if you dropped them in a basket as soon as you walk in the door.”

2. Begin your questions with “what” or “how.”

  • "What" questions ask for information that might shed light on a matter, such as: “What type of coaching do you think might be helpful to you?”
  • "How" questions provide further elucidation, such as: “How will you find such a coach?”

3. Strive to learn more about what happened instead of asking accusatory questions.

  • “What happened that got you upset?”
  • “In what way did I offend you?
  • “Do you want to talk about it now?”
  • “Would you be open to telling me more about what’s going on?”

Such open-ended questions, asked in a non-aggressive tone, have an excellent chance of enhancing the quality of your communication.

Now, back to “why?” I’m not suggesting that you strike the work “why” from your vocabulary. After all, there are many times, it’s quite useful:

  1. “Why do I need to file an additional tax form?” is an appropriate question to ask your accountant.
  2. “Why are you ordering this medical test for me?” is a proper question to ask your physician.
  3. “Why did you make our dinner reservation earlier?” is a suitable question - if it emanates from curiosity, not blame.

So, monitor yourself. Be aware of when your discourse is loaded with “why” questions which put others on the defensive. More communication is not always better communication.

Copyright © 2019: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.

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