The word “why” is the ultimate in inquisitiveness. Why is the sky blue? Why did the plane crash? Why does my cat start yowling at 6:00 in the morning every day? The purpose is to find information to an unknown.
The word “why” is also the ultimate in confrontation and judgment. Why did you break that window? Why did you get in that accident? Why didn’t you turn in that report? Why did you go on Match.com and email girls when you’re in a relationship with me? The purpose isn’t to find answers to the question asked, because we won’t like the answer we get. What we want is something deeper. We want to know why they hurt, shamed, or embarrassed us. Why did you think it was OK to do what you did, because I sure as hell don’t think it was. We want to make them think about what they did, and come up with how wrong they were.
When you are asking why of another person there are a couple things you need to look at. The first is what kind of answer you want. When I was 16 I got in a car accident in which I took a turn too fast. I thought I was cool, passed someone to fast, and ended up sliding on sand left over from the last snow storm; ping-ponging between the curbs of the two lane street breaking the axel of my mom’s station wagon. The question I got was “Why did you get in that accident?!” The answer was that I got in the accident because I was 16 and an idiot. Do you think that answer would have appeased my mom? Was that what she wanted to know?
Before I knew how horrible the word why is, I would ask the kids I worked with why the did whatever dumb-ass thing they did. It was truly an effort to get them to find within themselves the reason they chose to do what they did. In general a teenager isn’t quite ready for that kind of introspection. If I am truthful I also really wanted to know if they understood how wrong they were. I wanted them to show some shred of understanding of how what they did didn’t get them anywhere near where they wanted to be. I wanted things that they couldn’t give.
As a boss, partner or a parent asking the question why, we usually want to know if they know what they did was wrong. Or we want them to give us their excuse so we can rip it to shreds and tell them how wrong they were for whatever they did. The kid, partner or the employee knows this and immediately goes on the defensive. This results in either panicked attempts to find whatever answer will appease you or anger and resistance.
If you are faced with a situation in which you want to ask the question of why, you first have to figure out what your motivations are. As a parent or a partner; what do you want to hear from the person and what do you want them to hear from you? Do you want them to hear your frustration? Do you want them to hear how hurt or ashamed you are? Do you want them to tell you how wrong they were? Are you wanting them to fix the hurt, frustration or shame that they may have caused you? If so, then the question of why isn’t going to get you what you want. Knowing the why isn’t going to take away the hurt, frustration or shame. They also aren’t going to all of a sudden tell you how wrong their actions were.
Instead of asking why, tell them how their actions affect you and what the consequences are. Instead of asking why did you get in that accident; “I’m really frustrated that you got in an accident with the car. You need to identify what happened and how to not do it again, and because you caused so much damage you aren’t allowed to drive for 2 months and you have to find a way to pay me back for the cost of the repairs.” Instead of asking why they went on Match and cheated on you, you tell them; “When I found out you went on a dating site my heart broke. I don’t feel like I can trust you anymore and I don’t know that I can stay with you if I don’t trust you. I’m so angry, and I hurt because I feel like I’m not enough for you. I just don’t know what to do, and I don’t know that you can make it better”.
This requires a level of self-identification that some people find uncomfortable. In some cases it requires vulnerability that we don’t want to have when hurt. Ultimately it causes fewer problems than the question why. It leaves less room for defensiveness and justification. It also leaves room to ask questions like “what were you trying to accomplish” when you truly want to know the answer, because sometimes, especially with teens they were trying to do something legitimate just in unhealthy ways. If you can figure out what they were trying to do, then you can help them find ways to do it in a healthy manner.
When we ask the why question about our own motivations it is because we have judged our actions as wrong and bad. This judgment serves no purpose but to add to the shame and shame serves no purpose. Instead ask “what” questions. What did I want to have happen? What do I want in the future? What can I do differently next time if I don’t like what I did this time? When you can look at what you want in the future instead of beating yourself up for what happened in the past shame won’t wear you down and it will be easier to be the person you want to be.
The question why comes with judgment and doesn’t help the situation. Why is a great question when we actually want to find out factual information. If our goal is different than that purpose we have to really figure out what we want. Ultimately why is confrontation question that will generally result in some kind of defensiveness. When you want to ask why, either find a way to ask what instead, or just identify your feelings and what you need. Let go of why.