The Two Sides of "Why?"

Jane Herman

May 07, 2010

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The question, “Why?” can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You can use it to beat yourself up or to make yourself and your life immeasurably better. A simple, “Why?” can engender confusion and despair or it can spark enlightenment and personal transformation. The key is knowing in what context to ask it and when.

The Dark Side of “Why?”

For years communications experts and personal coaches have advised caution in the use of the infamous “Why?” question. Whether you are asking it of someone else or of yourself “Why?” can feel personal and accusatory. “Why did I say that? Why did I do that?” Behind the question lurks an implied rebuke �" as in, “Why did I do such a stupid thing?” “Why?” tends to become dangerous and denigrating when it is used in anger or frustration. But there is another side to why �" the spectacular side.

The Spectacular Side of “Why?”

Think back to when you first began to use the question “Why?” “Why is the sky blue? Why does it rain?” Why came from a place of curiosity and wonderment �" a place of wanting to learn more, to grasp new ideas, to grow. This is the context in which “Why?” can spark miraculous positive change. Asking, “Why?” in the context of genuine curiosity does not create defensiveness �" instead it allows you to dig deeper to uncover the truth behind what is getting in your way and keeping you stuck.

How Does “Why?” Work Its Magic?

“Why?” works for a very simple reason. When it is used properly it can be a pick ax to hack through the wall of generality. We get ourselves stuck because when something is not working well in our lives we tend to diagnose the root cause of our problem at a very superficial level. For example:
    I can never get anything done on time.
    Why? Because I procrastinate.
We are great at coming up with one-word or two-word summaries to describe the source of our problems:
    I procrastinate
    I feel overwhelmed
    I feel stuck
But beyond that we draw a blank. The solution to these and other annoying and pervasive problems is not self evident from such a simple statement of the problem. It is impossible to help yourself or anyone else stop procrastinating, eliminate overwhelm or get unstuck without first understanding the deeper root cause behind the observable symptom. And I am not talking here about some deep dark “cause” or psychological reason buried in your distant past �" I am talking about the cause in the present �" the here-and-now in-the-moment reasons. “Why?” can be an indispensable tool for uncovering the “current cause” of the dysfunctional behavior you are experiencing by leading you through a process of inquiry that goes beyond simple dead-end diagnoses such as “I procrastinate” or I am overwhelmed” or “I am burned out” or “I am stuck.” Here are some examples of how you can use “Why” in this positive and proactive manner:
    Example 1:

    I can never get anything done on time. Why? Because I procrastinate.

    NOW DON’T STOP THERE �" use another “Why?” to get to the next level:

    Why do I procrastinate?

    Is it because I perceive the tasks I have to do as unpleasant?

    Is it because I want to make everything perfect and if I can’t do so then I do nothing?

    Is it because I fear failure?

    Is it because I am disorganized?

    Example 2:

    I can’t seem to accomplish anything. Why? Because I feel overwhelmed.

    NOW DON’T STOP THERE �" use another “Why?” to get to the next level:

    Why do I feel overwhelmed?

    Is it because I have too many choices and am afraid of picking the wrong one?

    Is it because I have internalized an association between stress and productivity �" I believe that if something seems too easy I must not be doing it right so I create the necessary stress/panic level that makes me feel I am doing something important?

    Is it because I find it hard to say “no” to people so I take on more than I can possibly do?

    Is it because I have weak personal boundaries and let other people consume my time and energy leaving me no personal reserves to handle what I need to do?

    Is it because I have no criteria for judging what is important to me/my job/my life and so I find it difficult to make choices about what to do?
As you can see from the above, the solutions to your problems start to become more evident when you come to understand the specific reasons behind what you are experiencing. Thus, if you are overwhelmed because you “can’t say no” the solution (i.e., learning how to say “no” in a way that is comfortable for you) is not the same as if you are overwhelmed because you “have no criteria for judging what is important to do.” And you can continue to ask further “Whys” where appropriate until you get to the bottom of what really needs to be addressed to eliminate the symptoms you are experiencing.

The Bottom Line

“Why?” is a miraculous tool when used in the right context �" in the spirit of curiously and/or self-reflective inquiry. It is the tool you can use to step beyond the generalities that keep you stuck and tease out the distinctions that reveal the path forward to improvement.

Jane Herman is the Personal and Business Success Coach who helps managers, executives, and individuals take control of their lives and reinvent themselves, their careers, or their businesses. To receive a complimentary 30-minute coaching session with Jane, and/or sign up for Jane's free Success Tools electronic newsletter, log onto or email her at [email protected].

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