Three Downsides Of The Question “Why?”

By the end of this short article you’ll be a lot warier of using “Why?” as a problem-solving question, especially where people are involved. But first let me clarify: “Why?” can be a great question – for looking for the causes of problems in simple systems.

For complex systems, however (and anything involving people is a complex system), looking for causes is just going to be too hard, without sophisticated computer models and massive processing power to help you.

So why is “Why?” a bad question for solving problems where people are involved?

Three reasons:

1. It makes the person being questioned (or interrogated, which is what it can feel like) defensive.
If you are asked why you did something, or why something is going wrong in your team, it’s going to feel like an accusation – unless the person asking you has a lot of rapport skills, *and* you are able to detach your ego from your work.

Usually, people respond to “Why?” questions by defending their previous actions and decisions. They want to justify what they did, and convince you that it was the right thing to do. No-one likes to look foolish.

People also want to feel consistent with their earlier selves, because their past actions and decisions form part of our self-image. It’s uncomfortable to have a different light cast on them.

Even if people come round to the view that they took a wrong decision or did a wrong thing, they will usually try to excuse it, coming up with all kinds of mitigating factors. This now raises doubt in the questioner’s mind that they have learned anything from the experience. Cue arguments as the questioner tries to get them to break down and admit that they were wrong, and it won’t happen again. This can take a lot of time, and damage relationships.

2. “Why?” is a disempowering question
This is true even if the person on the receiving end of the question gets their ego out of the way, and is able to look at the situation dispassionately.

The question “Why?” directs attention back towards past causes, rather than towards the present (which is where you can act to change things) or the future (which is where you can decide what you want and set a course towards it).

When we focus on the past causes of our problems, decisions or actions, we view ourselves as acted upon rather than actors, so we end up being ‘effects’ of factors beyond our power to influence, rather than ’causes’ who can make things happen.

You can hear this in the language that people use (certainly in English – some other languages don’t work in quite the same way). “He upset me”, “She is annoying me”, “I had to hit him – he was looking at me.” In each case, the speaker is talking as if they have no control over their feelings, or even their actions.

Taken to the extreme, this view would mean that our lives run along predetermined paths, we can’t make choices, and free will is an illusion. The world becomes like a clockwork mechanism – a dull, hopeless place without meaning. No thanks!

3. Asking “Why?” usually won’t get you to the truth
Even if the  person on the receiving end is not putting up a defence of their actions, and is genuinely trying to tell you why they did what they did, you are unlikely to get to the real reasons.

If I ever got out of line at school and was hauled in front of the teacher for interrogation about why I committed whatever infraction it was, my answer was like any other schoolboy’s: “I don’t know sir.” Sometimes this was just stonewalling, but most of the time I genuinely didn’t know myself why I had done it. I looked back at my past actions and my mind went blank.

Why? Because people generally don’t know ‘why’ they do things. As Jonathan Haidt points out in his excellent book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom To The Test of Modern Science‘, most of the time our decisions and motivations come from the ‘elephant’ of automatic processing (or ‘unconscious’ as most hypnotherapists and NLP buffs know it) rather than from the ‘rider’ of conscious awareness.

Subjectively, it feels like our conscious awareness is in control (although looking at the results we get will soon disabuse us of that notion, as anyone who has dieted or ‘given up’ smoking more than once will recognise). In fact, it’s the ‘elephant’ that makes our day to day decisions, for reasons that are mysterious to us.

Just because we don’t know why we do things doesn’t stop us from making reasons up – a process called ‘confabulation’ that I’ve posted about before. These made-up stories may sound plausible, but any relationship to the ‘real’ but unknown reasons why we do things is usually coincidental.

It’s the confabulations, not the real reasons, that you get when you ask someone why they did something. Is it really worth risking putting them on the defensive to get information that probably won’t help you anyway?

In the next article (assuming you, my sharp-witted and strong-hearted readers, don’t send me more questions that send my thinking off in another direction), we’ll look at the situations when “Why?” actually can be a good question.

Until then, please do experiment with these ideas. What are you going to do differently as a result of what you’ve learned from this article? Let me know, and also let me know how you get on!

© 2010, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Tony Wrighton

    I really enjoyed reading this and it provided some great reminders. When we ask "Why?", the first thing we hear back is "Because…". It’s such an instinctive human response we can use it almost unconsciously, which isn’t necessarily that helpful from the questioner’s point of view.

    PS – I agree with Andy about the Salad cards. He recommended them to me years ago and I’ve made great use of them.

  2. Lou Larsen

    I agree for the most part. For years, NLP practitioners were "forbidden" to ask Why questions, especially when they had powerful tools like the Meta-Model. But "Why?" questions are a fairly good way to elicit someone’s beliefs. There’s also an interesting creativity technique called "The 3 Whys" where you think of an outcome and then ask yourself "Why do I want this?" for each answer. It’s a good way of finding out someone’s values and possibly getting them a more desirable outcome.

  3. Andy Smith

    Hi Lou,

    Thanks for commenting. I will be covering "Why?" questions for eliciting beliefs and motivation in the next article. I will check out the "3 Whys" – I generally find "What’s important to you about <outcome>?" to be a more precise question for eliciting values.

    Best wishes,
    Andy Smith

  4. Stephen Woolston

    Hi Lou, what's interesting about "why" and the NLP "ban" is if you look at the subject of chunking in NLP, the 'official' illustration in the Society of NLP manual shows "Why?" as one of the 'chunk-up' directors. Of course, it's silly to "ban" any question! I think early NLP trainers simply observed that people tended to jump to "Why?" and get stuck in content, confabulations and justifications instead of discovering a structure they could work with. And rather than have people consciously remember to not ask it, trainers tended to simply install big unconscious 'away from' drivers. "Why?" is a pretty good meta-programs discovery question though.

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