The Problem with “Why”

Early in my teaching career, a guidance counselor gave me brilliant advice when exploring the reasons why someone made a decision. It was counter-intuitive:

Resist asking why.

He explained the reasoning by asking me to think about what “why” opens up – the prepared answer, the agenda, the (by definition) inner thoughts and motives that may or may not be true.

The counsel is to ask other questions that are more concrete, so someone is less likely to have prepared answers. “How” and “what” are more action- and future-oriented, and helpful.

An example from that time – exploring why a student quit an activity:

Betsy is prepared, and thinks, “When he asks me why I quit, I’ll just tell him that my schedule was too full.”

ME: Hey Betsy, why did you quit?
BETSY: My schedule was full.

Oh – I can’t argue with that. We’re stuck. And I’ve learned nothing.

But this question catches her off guard, in a good way:

ME: Hey Betsy, what did you want out of band that you stopped getting?
BETSY: huh?
ME: Well, you’ve been in band for a long time, but now you don’t enjoy it any more because you’re choosing other things. That’s okay, but I want to make it better for the next people. So, what is it that you used to get out of band, that you don’t any longer?

BETSY: Well, the music used to be more fun. And more of my friends were in it.

See what happens? Instead of a vague conversation that can’t go anywhere, you open the door to the real reason.

An example I witnessed recently:

BOSS: Why do you gossip about Jordyn’s initiatives with others on the team?
REPORT: I’m not the only one. What, we’re not allowed to talk to other people about how we feel? I thought we were supposed to be open around here.

BOSS: . . .

Now you’re stuck – which rabbit hole will you go down? You could get sucked into talking about how “everyone else is mad” or that you’re controlling their private speech, or forced to get philosophical about what “openness” means.

But what about using a concrete “what” question?

BOSS: What are the main flaws in Jordyn’s latest initiative?
REPORT: Why are you asking me?

BOSS: Well, I want your opinions on ideas – not people, but ideas – and you seem to think this one could be improved. What would you do first?

You could do “how…”

BOSS: How could Jordyn’s latest initiative be tweaked in order to get your full support?


Avoid why, and go with how and what and see what happens.

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