How to Use "Why" to Open Conversation Doors
I just had one of those uncomfortable conversations with one of my adult children. In a recent “Facetime” with my son in college, we were discussing his future and some decisions he needed to make.
“Why would you want to go there and do that?” I asked.
My tone wasn’t judgmental or condescending—at least, I don’t think it was. I was asking out of curiosity and trying to understand. However, my son’s negative, non-verbal reaction and facial expression immediately revealed a different story. I could tell that he was clearly offended by my question, and I didn’t understand why.
Our conversation was cut short suddenly when my son told me that he needed to meet up with some friends to play soccer. I could clearly see that he wanted the conversation to end. The door to further conversation with my adult child was closed—locked.
Why would he have reacted that way? What did I do wrong? What did I say to push him away?
I racked my brain all day trying to come up with a million reasons why my question—my words—evoked that type of response from him.
Our brains are wired to want to understand “WHY”? We long for a reason that makes sense to us, and as a result, we often ask “WHY” questions.
We seem to be born with a natural curiosity that leads us to inquire, to ask, and to understand. This becomes evident at a very early age. My six-year-old son is always asking me “why” questions . . .
“Why are we moving to America?”
“Why does Samy (our dog) lick his fur?”
“Why do we have to die?”
“Why do men and women kiss?”
Beyond childhood, our educational system encourages questioning and inquiry, pushing students to dig deeper, to find solutions, to ask questions—to ask “why” and to discover “why.”
Asking “why” seems natural—even intellectual. It seems good and right that we want to understand the reasons behind something or behind someone’s thoughts or actions.
However, relationally, it’s tricky. Asking “why” often seems to close the door to conversation, rather than inviting someone to open up and share their story.
WHY is that?
Some cultures, personalities, and work environments lend themselves more to questioning than others. Usually, there must be a solid foundation of trust, just the right circumstances, and maybe a whole lot of “luck” to make asking “why” work well.
Some reasons why it’s best not to ask WHY.
Asking WHY. . .
—Makes others defensive.
—Can make intuitive thinkers feel foolish if they can’t come up with a quick, logical explanation.
—Can elicit an emotional reaction that sets the stage for argumentativeness.
—Tends to focus people’s attention on the past rather than on solutions for the future.
We may be asking ourselves at this point, “Does this mean I can never ask ‘WHY’? How will I understand the reasons behind my son’s thinking in regards to his future? How will I ever be able to accept the reason why my spouse made that decision—the one I didn’t agree with? How will I ever know and understand if I can’t ask ‘WHY’?”
Here are two ways we can use “why” to better understand the people around us and to open conversation doors.
1. To increase understanding, get in the habit of sharing YOUR OWN “why”with others.
Explain to others why you are asking, why it’s important to you, why you want to know and better understand. This approach has so many benefits and so few drawbacks.
Verbalizing WHY you’re asking. . .
—Gives a reason so the other person doesn’t have to figure one out on his own.
—Builds ownership in the other person for your idea or vision.
—Allows people to respond to what’s really important.
As a result of TELLING YOUR WHY, team members will become more engaged, family members will seem more supportive, and you will feel more motivated and on task.
2. When asking questions, try to replace “why” questions with more forward, solution-focused questions.
Ask “what” questions that draw more out of people without putting them on the defensive, or “how” questions that help them to process and lay out a plan for the future.
Looking back on that conversation with my son, I never shared the reason I was asking the question. I didn’t share MY “why,” but I wanted HIS. If I’d shared MY “why,” he would have had a chance to respond to that instead.
Hopefully, I will soon have another opportunity to unlock the door of conversation with my son.
In “Take 2,” I would tell him MY “why,” and I would change my “why” questions to forward-thinking questions (“what,” “how,” “where,” “when” . . . )
Maybe our conversation will go something like this . . .
“Your Dad and I really love you and care about you and your future. We would love to help you process some of the major decisions you need to make right now. It would really mean a lot to us to come alongside you and help you at this time. (MY “why”) Could we ask you a few questions? (ask permission) What factors are important to you in this decision about your future? When you look down the road, 5 years from now, where would you like to be? Where do you see yourself? (forward, solution-focused questions)
May this hard lesson learned take my relationship with my son to a new level of intimacy and trust. May my questions build bridges that will invite him to tell me his story.
Paying attention and taking control of how we communicate with others has long-lasting effects. It can save us a lot of heartache, help us accomplish our goals, and lead us to more meaningful relationships.
“WHY wouldn’t we want that? Oops! WHO wouldn’t want that?!”