This is a slightly controversial piece. The reason I have written it is because I have seen the negative effects of parents, teachers and others asking critical ‘why?’ questions. I also had a fine teacher who explained the effects of different kinds of questions.
Certainly it is possible to ask tough questions in a caring way. When in doubt, however, it can often be more encouraging to use ‘what?’ rather than ‘why?’ That is more likely to enable a person to achieve their picture of success.
“Be careful when you ask ‘why?’ questions,” said one teacher when I was studying psychotherapy. “Because of their previous experience with such questions, a person may feel attacked or not be able to fully answer.
“There may be many reasons why, for example, a person behaves in a self-defeating way. They may have had poor models in the childhood, failed to learn particular skills or whatever. Certainly it can be useful with such insights, but there are other ways to will help them to gain this understanding.
“The point of asking questions is to enable a person to open-up, explore and find answers.
“It is not to make them feel intimidated. Even if a client discovers ‘why’ they behave in a certain way, they must then still move towards changing their behaviour.
“So you may want to consider another approach. People are more likely to open-up if you create an encouraging environment and then ask certain kinds of ‘what?’ questions.
“Imagine that you want to help a client to alter their self-defeating behaviour.
“First, you can clarify the specific goals they want to achieve – their picture of success.
The client may be trying to fulfil some of their basic needs – such as wanting to be loved, happy and successful. But unfortunately they behave in a way that pushes away the very things they want.
“So you can ask questions such as: ‘What are the goals you want to achieve?’ Clarify their specific goals in, for example, a real-life situation.
“Second, you can offer positive models and practical tools they can use to achieve ongoing success.
“Such an approach is more likely to be successful than coming across as a critic by asking: ‘Why do you do that?’ Sometimes you can help a person to move forward by asking ‘what?’ rather than ‘why?’.”
The teacher’s views highlighted why people clammed up when asked to explain their behaviour. Certainly somebody could benefit from understanding the reasons for their actions, but there were other methods for gaining such insights.
The aim was to expand a person’s repertoire of tools for achieving success, rather than forever analysing.
Let’s explore how to you can use ‘what’ questions to, for example, enable people to develop their behaviour.
1) You can recognise the consequences of asking a ‘why?’ question.
Some people seize-up when asked a ‘why?’ question. Much depends, of course, on the way the question is asked. Sometimes it can come across as caring, but other times it is interpreted as critical. One person said: “When people keep asking ‘why?’ it is as if an electrical charge goes across my brain.”
“But sometimes it is vital to know a colleague’s reasons for putting forward an idea,” somebody may say. “They must back it up with some rationale, rather than just wing it.”
Agreed: it is good to know why somebody is suggesting a particular strategy. But people find it easier to answer ‘open’ questions that may have several answers, rather than ‘closed’ questions which demand one ‘correct’ answer. So another way to understand a person’s hunch, for example, is to ask something like:
“What are your reasons for suggesting this way forward? What do you believe would be the benefits? What might be some of the downsides?”
Good communicators get people to open-up, rather than close down. So let’s explore some ways of making this happen.
2) You can ask different kinds of ‘what?’ questions to help the person to succeed.
Imagine you are a counsellor, therapist or coach. Your role is to help people to achieve their picture of success. Each person may come to you with both successful and self-defeating patterns. How can you help them to reach their goals?
One approach is to ask ‘why?’ questions; another is to ask ‘what?’ questions.
Below I have listed many more in the second category. Some of these ‘what’ questions may actually help a person to uncover the reasons ‘why’ they behave in a certain way. But they also chart a way forward. Some also lead to asking ‘how?’ the person wants to implement their chosen action plan.
Here are the two types of questions you might ask somebody when they come for a session.
“Why would you like to take part in the sessions? Why would you like to achieve your specific goals? Why don’t you achieve them at the moment?
“Why do you feel or behave the way you do? Why do you get into difficulties in, for example, relationships or work? Looking back at when you succeeded, why do you think you were successful? Why don’t you continue to follow these patterns?
“Why don’t you change your behaviour to reach your goals?”
“What would you like to get from the sessions? What are your specific goals? What would you like to achieve in your life and work?
“Bearing these aims in mind, what topics would you like to explore in the sessions? What specific things – tools, ideas, knowledge – would you like to take away? What for you would make the sessions successful?”
“Looking at the first topic you want to explore, let’s focus on a real-life situation. What are your specific goals in this situation? What are the real results you want to achieve? What is your picture of success?
“Looking back at your own history – and looking around you – what do you believe works in this situation? Bearing in mind your own successful patterns, what can you do to follow these principles more in the future? What will be the benefits – for you and for other people? Looking at the specific situation, what other skills would you like to learn to achieve your picture of success?”
“Let’s move on to something rather difficult. What do you think doesn’t work in this situation? What will happen if you behave this way? Looking at your unsuccessful patterns, what may be the reasons you learnt them?”
“Unlikely as it may seem, there may also be some hidden benefits in such patterns. If so, what might be the conscious or unconscious pay-offs? Let’s look at the other positive alternatives. What could you do to get the same pay offs, but behave in a different way? What will be the pluses and minuses of behaving in this way?”
“Let’s revisit your goals in the real-life situation: what can you do to achieve these goals? What are the specific steps you want to take? What else can you do to give yourself the greatest possible chance of success?
“What support do you need? What can you do to get an early success? What can you do to encourage yourself on the journey? What are the specific things that will be happening that will show you have achieved your picture of success?”
You will, of course, create your own repertoire of questions for helping a person to reach their goals. Certainly it can be possible to ask a ‘why?’ question that enables a person to move forward. But such questions have to be asked carefully.
It is also good to watch the person and see how they react. Do they open-up or close-down? Building on what works, you can then expand your repertoire of questions that enable a person to succeed.
3) You can give a person a positive alternative regarding ‘what’ you would like them to do in the future – rather than ask: “Why do you do that?”
During the 1970s I spent several years working with family therapy. One pattern that emerged was that members of healthy families were often fair fighters.
Healthy parents encouraged their children. They also gave them clear messages – rather than confused messages or conflicting messages. Everybody knew the ‘family rules’, which were geared to helping people to grow. When the parents had to draw a line with their children, however, they frequently gave the youngsters a positive alternative.
Certainly they expressed their feelings, but they also explained ‘what’ they would like the children to do in the future. The children therefore ‘had a place to go’. They knew the specific behaviour that would – and would not – be rewarded.
Troubled families were made-up of dirty fighters. The parents fell into arguments and criticised other family members, demanding: “Why do you do that?” Everybody felt blamed and there was no place to go.
Fair fighters offer people a positive way forward. They start by taking responsibility for their own behaviour. When encountering challenges, they try to find creative solutions. When encountering conflicts, they aim to clarify what each person wants. They then use ‘how?’ questions: such as:
“How can we – as far as possible – find a ‘win-win’?”
Dirty fighters focus on how others are to blame. Their relationships often end up as ‘win-lose’ or, more likely, ‘lose-lose’.
People can take the first step towards developing a more virtuous circle by communicating ‘what’ they would like the other person to do in the future. This won’t work straight away, maybe because there may be too much pain in the relationship. But it does give the possibility of considering a positive way forward.
As I said at the beginning, this may be a slightly controversial piece. As ever, however, take the best and leave the rest. Use the ideas you like to help other people to achieve success.