“Why did you do that?” Chances are, you added some tone in there. Some rhetoric, perhaps? How about when YOU asked somebody why they did something. Do you find it hard to ask “Why?” without coming across condescending or disingenuous? If your “why” doesn’t cause some strange or hard feelings to crop up, then you are lucky, but you might need to read this anyway. Who knows when you’ll converse with someone that won’t be sure how to take your inquisition.
As kids, our parents exclaimed on a regular basis, “Why did you do that?!” Now as a parent myself, I understand why. Life is busy. We hardly have time to evaluate every crazy thing our kids do. Meanwhile, we’re stressing about bills, car repairs, a new roof, and what’s for dinner. After more than 18 years (or a lifetime for some) of hearing “Why?!” from the elders like I have just lost my mind, it’s damn near impossible to not have the wrong impression when someone asks me why I did a thing. It is ingrained and since I retort my child’s behavior with the same question, I am likely projecting my own behavior when someone uses the singularly interrogative word on me.
For real though, why?
Enough with the socially pathetic anecdote, let’s break down “why” a little more on the logical side of the English language. “Why” is a very powerful word. Not because it elicits a verbal response, but because it [why], like many words in the English language, was etiologically created to replace a series of words or entire sentences in some cases. A lingual evolution to induce brevity in conversation. While this sounds sensible and is a good argument towards using language as it was intended, brevity has a tendency to break down confidence in it’s target. For example, if you have ever said “I love you, hunny.” with all the sincerity you have and a significant other responded with “You too.”, you can quickly see where brevity is not appreciated. It’s hard to believe a response like that was as sincere as the initiating sentiment. “Why”, is a brief way to ask something that deserves a little more attention and absolutely no confusion however, because it is brief, there is potential to alienate attention and certainly cause confusion. “Easy come, easy go” as they say.
So, what is the purpose of all this? (You’ll see WHAT I did there pretty soon) I want to explain another way of asking “why”. Re-frame your “why” question to become a “what” question. When you choose to use “what” to collect the “why” you’ll find yourself much more effective in your goals. Notice when you ask “why” of something, you can simply say, “Why?”. If you re-frame the question to “what”, you have to add more to it. You just have to. “What did you do that for?” “What was your reasoning for doing this?” “What were you expecting from your decision?” Each one of those questions could be replaced by “Why?” very easily, BUT because the effort made to ask the longer questions is substantially more, they lend themselves to suggest you understand there is more to the action than just mindless behavior. These longer, more thought out questions show that you have an inherent respect for the thing that was done, thought, or said. Your target will be more receptive of your genuine curiosity if they feel their decisions are respected and appreciated. An example; instead of “Why?”, ask “What was your purpose for the action taken?” The later question immediately tells the recipient that you understand the action had a purpose and it was THEIR purpose.
It may seem like a minuscule detail that is more pedant than beneficial, but the world is competitive and genuineness is key to leaving a “try hard” world behind. Anything that can be done better, should be done better. Asking “why ” in a manner that shows you understand, care, and want to get to a deeper knowing of a decision can set you apart as a person with friends, bosses, co-workers, humans… Even if none of this matters or even makes sense, consider this: Next time you are going to ask “why” and you know you don’t actually care for the reason, but you do care about the person you are asking, taking the time to re-frame the question, will give you time to make sure you don’t come off as rude. In other words, it’s the polite thing to do.