How to Quit Asking Why 

I was the member of a Mastermind Group about ten years ago.  It was a terrific experience working with Human Resource professionals from different industries around the Raleigh/Durham area.  I always remember one of the ground rules for Mastermind, which is a group of like-minded professionals who discuss confidentially current issues in their job or business and meet on a regular basis. The ground rule was to not ask Why. I remember thinking that that seemed odd.  After all, haven’t I been asking why since I was about 3 years old?  Seems like an obvious, simple question to get to the bottom of an issue or problem.  But think about it for a moment when I ask you the following questions:


Why are you late?

Why are you early?

Why are you on time?

Why are we going?

Why is it hot?

Why haven’t you?

Why won’t you?

Why don’t you?

Why is that there?

Why don’t you just…?

How does that feel?  I know it makes me feel defensive and diminished. Like I belong on a stool facing the corner in my kindergarten class.  Is this really how I want to treat people? It can be interrogating, demanding, confrontational and judgmental all at the same time. It focuses on the problem instead of insight and solutions. What about some alternatives?

How to quit asking why:

Describe the situation.  Let’s say your employee is late with an important project.  Instead of asking “Why is this late?”, you could ask:

Tell me about the timeline for this project.

How did this get off track?

What were some obstacles you had to deal with?

What were the circumstances that led to this situation?

You are more likely to get better insight into what is causing delays for the employee that you may not realize; and be more proactive towards solutions going forward. This tests your assumptions and can open your eyes to the whole situation.

Getting unstuck. Let’s say your employee rarely seems to make progress on one aspect of their job like sending in status reports or proofing their work.  Instead of asking, “Why haven’t you completed the reports?” Or “Why don’t you check your work?”, you could ask:

What have you tried so far? 

How did it go? 

What is getting in the way? 

Who could help you? 

What other resources do you need? 

It’s important that this doesn’t open the door to you, as the boss, to take over.  It’s more about discovery for your employee to find ways to get unstuck. Instead of you prescribing the answer. 

Look for understanding.  What can be loaded into “why” is implying that the employee isn’t good enough.  Like, “Suzy finished on time so why didn’t you? “Or “Joe’s slideshow had 50 slides, why did you only have 10 slides?” This is loaded with blame and makes the employee feel less than.  You could ask instead:

What was your thought process…?

What other options have you explored?

How did you arrive at this decision?

Tell me more.

Tell me about that.

It’s important at this point to sit back and listen with an open mind and curiosity.  Frequently, if we are a new leader or new to the organization, we feel like we need to have an answer and solution for everything instead of looking for the wisdom in those that work for us.  

As a coach, I really try to steer clear of Why, and a little bit of shorthand for me is to ask either, “How” or “What” or “Help me understand”.  How about you?  What do you use in place of Why?

Pointing Fingers

I’d love to know how much time and energy gets wasted pointing fingers.  We seem to be constantly searching for Fault, who to blame – The fall guy. We feel so vindicated once that football coach is fired, that worthless sales guy is let go or your daughter finally drops that no good boyfriend. Now it will all be better. But it isn’t.  Pointing fingers can be….er, pointless.

I’m not trying to assert that root cause analysis isn’t important. It certainly has its place when figuring out what went wrong with a plane crash. I’m just saying it’s not very productive in everyday life.  If the stakes aren’t high, what is the point of all this finger pointing?  It creates camps of co-workers on one side or the other; it creates division.  The assumption mill goes crazy along with the gossip mill and, worst of all, the complaint mill.images

I recently joined a peer to peer group and one of the rules of engagement is to not ask “why”. Well that seemed a little unorthodox, my Human Resource filter is always looking for the “why” but what was astutely pointed out by our leader is that “why” is all about blame. We are in the group for solutions and that is all about “what, how and where”. Makes you think doesn’t it.

So how do we get off the blame train? Here are some ideas:

1. You. It starts with you. Forgive yourself.  Calm down your inner critic.  I’ve seen co-workers blame themselves and then beat themselves up for months. I’ve seen managers bring up the doofus they hired ten years ago and waited two years to fire. This is not going to instill confidence in yourself…or anybody else. Don’t live in blame mode.

2. Debrief with compassion.  The team should certainly review what went right and what went wrong at an event. Be careful not to attach anyone to the failures. “Well it was Joe’s decision to get the dancing Elephant, what an idiot!”  Don’t start driving the bus over anyone.  Learn from the failures and successes and move on. No corpses left behind. The team won’t be afraid of the debrief going forward.

3. Potential. Dr. David Rock advocates “listening for potential” in his book “Quiet Leadership”. It engages you as a listener. Instead of thinking for ways to respond or problem solve, you listen with the intent for the speaker to find their own potential. It’s so much more proactive.  It’s difficult to point the finger if you are looking for potential.

4. Stop judging. Half the time, people are pointing the finger because they want the spotlight off themselves. If they start judging others and their actions, they feel better. Put someone else down and then, by default, you raise yourself up. This may work for a while but eventually you will find yourself alone. No one hangs out with guy who is driving the bus over folks.

5. Commitment. There are going to be times when you hold your child accountable for failing grades, your assistant for the botched report or your dog for the “accident” on the carpet.  Keep it as confidential as possible, maintain their self esteem and show them confidence and commitment that we can move forward from here.

It’s easy to fall into finger pointing and this isn’t going to end anytime soon. Start in your corner of the world and see what effect it has on others. As Bob Marley said, “who are you to judge the life I live? I know I’m not perfect and I don’t live to be, but before you start pointing fingers make sure your hands are clean.”