A few years ago, I was reading a psychology magazine that said asking people "why" can backfire on you—especially if the outcome in question is a potential negative.

Asking "why" is an inward-focused question for the person being asked. It puts the onus on them to immediately choose an answer, even when they might not yet have enough background information to really know.

“Why” pushes people into a weird defensive space where they are evaluating and measuring an answer on the fly. They may have had nothing to do with the situation, but when you request that they define the cause, it triggers an immediate internalization.

A Different Way to Say It

Let’s dream wildly and say the ice cream machine at McDonald’s is actually working. News spreads through town quickly. There’s a buzz. And in all the excitement, your 16-year-old daughter and her friends take your minivan without asking, and go get Shamrock Shakes late Tuesday night (yes, this story takes place in March, in Pleasantown USA).

You’re upset with her. Mostly because she didn’t grab a shake for you, but also because it’s illegal for her to drive with underage friends or alone after dark. It was an unsafe decision that could get you in trouble if she was stopped by police.

When she walks in the door, you ask “Why did you borrow the car without asking?” That’s her cue for shields up. Things can turn argumentative. She may have all the reasons in the world for thinking what she did was OK, but asking “Why” makes her feel she has to justify it on the spot rather than get to explain herself.

“What happened that…”

In the above example, what if you had said, “What happened that made you want to borrow the car without asking?”

Phrased this way, young Madison isn’t immediately having to focus on her internal decisions. You’ll eventually get to those, but first, it’s beyond helpful for you to hear about external factors that influence her choices. You may still end up taking her phone away for a day or two the same as if you had asked “Why”, it’s just that this new line of questioning delivers more information. That breeds greater transparency and trust.

Putting it Into Practice

Not asking “why” applies to all areas of life. It took me a few weeks to start catching myself and replace it with a less direct, more fruitful phrasing. Things like:

“What happened that...”

“What made him do that?”

“What makes you say that?”

The difference was immediately noticeable. People seemed more at ease when answering. Conversations with my spouse were more productive. Even when I was stuck in a customer service phone queue hell, purposefully avoiding “Why” kept the discussion with the agent feeling cooperative rather than adversarial.

Asking the right questions the right way

At Identical, we love asking questions. Every brand name we create or word we write is born from a question. So we have to ask you, "What is happening now that makes you want a brand people can identify with?"

Drop us your answer

Joe Nafziger