Tweaking the ‘why’ question

I have been a big proponent of the ‘why‘ question. I can be annoyingly curious and I’ve always taken pride in my attempts to understand why things are the way they are. And I’m always amazed at how the simple word ‘why‘ can redefine our thought process. I’ve experienced it many a time in a deep discussion where we find ourselves lost in details – just asking the ‘why‘ often clears our minds and results in progress.

It was at a dinner conversation the other day when an experienced (and inspirational) friend drew my attention to the ‘other side’.
He took me back to his first big consulting gig 20 years ago when he was a young man about to interview an important CEO. He was all prepared with tons of good questions and when the meeting began, he asked one question after another. And by the end of it, he was feeling very good as he was sure he had demonstrated his competence. At the end of the interview, his final question was to ask the CEO how he felt the interview had gone.
The CEO looked at him, smiled and said – ‘The questions were all really good. But, the experience was very intimidating’
This friend was completely taken aback. This was a 50 year old legend telling him he was intimidated!
‘All those questions – they made me feel like I should have known all the answers. And, not knowing them was pretty embarrassing and intimidating.’
At this point in his story, he said something that rung a bell – he said that often there is a component of our ‘ego‘ present when we are deep into asking questions. Our eagerness to find the answer, to ‘figure it out’ often gets the better of us and we tend to forget the real purpose – to understand where the other person is coming from, what the other person is feeling and why the other person is feeling so.
This question led to quite some reflection on my part. I know of times in the past when I’ve gotten carried away with my problem solving ‘genius’ (in my opinion, of course!) while solving a friend’s problem without much consideration of what the friend was probably feeling. The excitement takes over, and before you know it, you are all over the person’s private space.. And it is this tendency that has lead to me appearing intimidating to many a friend when the intention was far from it.
There are some discussions in life that lead to breakthroughs in our own thinking. This was a big one for me. There’s a lot I’m going to be doing differently from here on in, thanks to this.
To demonstrate how it could be intimidating –
Imagine you asked me – ‘Why did you choose that dress?’
I would most likely start with a passionate defence of the dress and my decision before moving onto anything logical or really answering your question. The response is purely emotional.
An alternate way to ask is –
‘What made you choose.. this shirt?’
This question accompanied by a politely curious look, a smile and lots of humility could help meet the original point of asking the ‘why‘ question – to actually understand the rationale behind a decision or an action.
In short, when asking the ‘why‘, it helps understanding why we ask the ‘why‘ question in the first place.