Stay away from ‘why’ questions

Why do you get defensive?

Why does an innocent question like, “Why did you do that?” provoke an angry response?

Image Description : A person in a leafy park with their back to us and their hands in the air in a why gesture.
Image Credit: Photo by AZGAN MjESHTRI on Unsplash  

It’s because your brain associates ‘why’ with something negative.

Think back to times when you got told off:

  • Why did you do that? 
  • Why aren’t you meeting your targets? 

Or times when you felt judged:

  • Why aren’t you more like blah blah? 
  • Why can that team do it and yours can’t? 

The effect in written communications is amplified further because the reader infers your tone of voice, and let me tell you, they usually go with something negative. What was your reaction to the opening question above?

Let’s do another experiment so you see what I mean.

Imagine you’re talking to you manager on WhatsApp about your worries for an upcoming presentation and they text:

Why are you worried? 

What’s your gut reaction? Is your manager concerned, annoyed, or dismissive?

If it’s unclear to you then when you use ‘why’ questions it might be unclear to your team too. In the absence of information the brain usually assumes the worst.

Instead reframe your ‘why’ questions into ones starting with ‘what’ as in, “What’s worrying you?” or ‘how’ as in “How can I support you?”

It’s tricky to begin with but with practice it gets easier and easier.

If you’ve got a ‘why’ question you’re struggling to reframe send it to me and I’ll send back some suggestions.

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