Question posed: I asked an acquaintance why he did something (he even admitted it was obviously stupid). He accused me of being judgmental, stormed away, and won’t speak to me. What did I do wrong?
Answer: When emotions are high, ‘why’ is almost always the wrong question to ask. It’s when emotions are calm and supportive that ‘why’ shows interest in someone’s thoughts and feelings. Here’s why ‘why’ should be used with caution:
Avoiding the word ‘why’ is work, but it works
An excited father told this story the day after we practiced asking questions without using ‘why’. He pulled into a mall parking lot. His toddler in a car seat said, “Daddy, park there,” and pointed to her preferred spot. He parked in a different spot and the child screamed. He asked, ‘why are you crying?’ (a nonspecific and vague demand for explanation of behaviour he didn’t like). She ramped up her howls. He asked, “What was it about the other spot you liked?” (a specific, non-accusatory expression of interest in the other’s story). The girl sniffled and said, ‘It had a puddle in it.’
We should ask questions that get out the story. Here’s why. (That’s not a question)
The five Ws of questioning: Who, What, When, Where, and their sibling Why
The five Ws establish contexts. After the people (who), issues (what), location (where), and timing (when) are known, ‘why’ is the vessel that pours the stories.
Well-timed, well-placed, well-worded questions are like art that touches nerves and opens hearts. Good questions clarify, test realities, raise new possibilities, and challenge boundaries that limit thoughts. However, questions starting ‘why’ – alone or with additional words – can continue or even escalate a conflict.
Formulate a good question before speaking it with these tips.
‘Why’ is a vague, nonspecific question. ‘Why’ demands an accounting, but of what? Specific questions are more difficult to form because conflict decreases our ability to articulate our thoughts. Thus, we default to easy ‘why’ questions because conflict compromises our clear thinking. The word ‘why’ alone can inflame argument or withdrawal into silence => conflict continues.
Vague, lazy questions get formulaic answers. The common answers to a ‘why’ question begin with ‘because…’ or end with ‘I don’t know…’ A ‘because’ justifies an action and often includes a counterattack. ‘I don’t know’ is a dead end. Either resists the call to account that’s demanded, which then deteriorates into arguing. => conflict continues.
‘Why’ is a raft of assumptions floating in the guise of a question. ‘Why did…?’ assumes the party did something. ‘Why would…?’ assumes the person’s judgment is in doubt. ‘Why should…?’ assumes the suggestion is unworthy. Assumptions about another contribute to the other’s defensiveness, which shuts down conversation. => conflict escalation.
‘Why’ implies blame. The usual response to being blamed is rationalizing motives, withdrawal from the conversation, or a denial so the person doesn’t look guilty. => conflict continues.
‘Why’ perpetuates the pattern of communication that got the parties stuck in conflict. It might have started with some hurt. But, then the person who is asked ‘why’ feels the blame, confrontation or attack in the question and responds in kind. Additional ‘why’ questions contribute to everyone feeling misunderstood. => conflict continues and escalates.
‘Why’ begs for a denial. The vague question gets a denial. ‘Why did you …’ leads to ‘I didn’t’ as often as it does an explanation. Denied action heads the conversation towards a dead end or heated argument. => conflict escalates.
Without intending it, ‘why’ questions sound hostile and confrontational. Consider the tone of voice often associated with, for example, ‘Why do you want to know?’ or ‘Why do you care?’ The attitude is akin to ‘What’s it to ya?’ or, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’ => conflict escalates.
Getting past ‘why’
‘Why’ questions intend to elicit understanding, not blame, incite emotion, or trigger denial. However, those are often the reactions to ‘why’ questions. Avoid the ‘why’ traps of ‘because’ and ‘I don’t know’ and denial with the other four Ws’ open-ended and non-judgmental specific questions substituted for their weak fifth partner.
Consider this: What’s the question underneath the vague ‘why’? What do you really want to know to show you’re interested in hearing the story. Then think of a good question worded to get that information.
When is ‘why’ safe to ask?
‘Why’ is sometimes appropriate. It can be a gentle probe for an explanation when the relationship is calm and supportive.
A simple test for using ‘why’ is whether the answer matters, and if so, to whom?
‘Why did you like that movie?’ implies the movie wasn’t likable, but so what? It’s okay someone liked a movie others hated. ‘Why was that your book club selection?’ shows interest in a book and no one else is affected.
However, if a relationship is in conflict over taste in movies and selecting books to read, the questions are loaded. The answers matter to those people.
‘What was the best part of the movie for you’ and ‘How does your book club select books’ removes the implied judgment.
Novel questions can prevent or deescalate conflicts
Words have predictable or novel patterns in relationships. Conflict cycles over the same terrain with familiar arguments. Paying attention to language can create conditions that changes those communication patterns and decreases conflict. In complex adaptive systems, which conflicts are, changing one thing can change everything. Novel and thoughtful questioning enters the relationship system as inputs, and new possibilities for the relationship open.
A version of this article first appeared on mediate.com