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Switching Whys to Whats

It is really hard to answer “why” questions, and now someone has actually done research to explain how it gets easier to think when you change “why” questions into “what” questions.  The author states:

Why questions draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.

If someone asked me, “what kind of ice cream do you like?” I would say, “Coffee chip.”  Black-and-white question, concrete answer.  But if someone follows that up with, “why do you like coffee chip?” the answer gets a lot more muddled.  Because… it’s bitter and sweet at the same time?  But I don’t really like other bitter and sweet combinations.  Because… it reminds me of coffee in the morning?  Not really…  I don’t know why I like it; I just do.

What asks us for information.  Why asks us to explain ourselves.

I really liked the part where she talked about how answering “what” questions got the guy rolling towards helpful information.  It’s as if hearing some truth sparks a person toward deeper truths because the words feel right.  It’s like when you put on a new pair of jeans and you know it’s the right fit before they’re over your hips.  I mean, once the jeans are zipped up, you know it’s right.  But even before that, you have a sense that you’re putting on something that fits.

And maybe hearing some facts that ring true as we work toward understanding drives us closer to gathering useful information about ourselves.  If we can just take a few steps down that road, the rest of the thoughts come to us.  Like therapy, like talking things out with a therapist and realizing things that were dormant in your brain the whole time.

I don’t have a huge decision to make right now, but I’m going to try this the next time I have to figure something out.  Switch my “whys” to “whats” and see where things go.

And lest you worry that “why” questions have no place, the author points out that “a good rule of thumb, then, is that why questions are generally better to help us understand events in our environment but what questions are generally better to help us understand ourselves.”

Grappling with anything at the moment?  Does changing your questions from why to what bring you toward clarity?


1 Valery { 05.14.17 at 3:21 pm }

ha ha, here I was, hoping to read how to bend those conversations with four-year-olds that run from one why to the next…

2 torthuil { 05.14.17 at 3:39 pm }

Interesting. I think the most common “what” question I ask is “what is going on?” And once I gave answer to that, I’ll proceed to “why is X happening?” I never really thought of it that way, but the “what” questions help make things more concrete. I need to be able to visualize What I am dealing with. That cuts it down to size.

3 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.14.17 at 9:16 pm }

This could help me in teaching.

4 Heather { 05.25.17 at 9:41 am }

Ja it doesn’t seem to help asking kids why they did things. So this is really helpful for me as a teacher too.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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