Kids crack me up! I love watching young kids begin to develop their own little personalities. It’s fascinating (and often hilarious) to watch them test boundaries, try new things, explore concepts and generally just try to understand the world they live in. They’re so curious and, ultimately, they just want to know more! In fact, their favorite question to ask (constantly) is “why?”
You tell them it’s time to go to bed. They ask, “Why?” You tell them the sky is blue. They ask, “Why?” You tell them not to put their finger in the electrical outlet. They do it anyway, get shocked, cry, and then when you reiterate that they shouldn’t put their finger in the outlet, they still ask, “why?” (Ugh.) Answering the question “why” can be exhausting!
Let’s be honest though. Even as adults, we understand the power of that question and we love to ask it! We know it’s different than other questions like “where?” or “who?” or “what?” Those are just the details. The “why” of something is about motivation; it’s about purpose and reason. The “why” is what compels us to action (or not). It’s the question that drives us and, whether out loud or not, it’s a question we’re asking constantly. (Though, if you’re still sticking your finger in the electrical outlet… get help!)
Well, just like the parent who is sick of hearing their kid ask “why” over and over (and over) again, sometimes other people don’t like that question either. Ask “who” or “when” all you want, but “why” can get you into trouble! If that’s the case for you, it might be something to pay attention to. Let me show you what I mean.
I am a VERY curious person. I LOVE to learn and understand things better. So, “why” is a question I’m always asking. When I was young and idealistic, I foolishly believed that this was a trait that would be universally appreciated. (False!) I was a year out of college and teaching high school and was always looking for how to do things more effectively. I was also working on my Masters in Education and was constantly learning about the best and most effective teaching techniques based on the newest research. This led to me asking some questions that were not as appreciated as I’d hoped.
One day, I walked into an administrator’s office at the school with a question about why we did things a certain way. This particular policy didn’t make much sense to me and I wanted to understand it better. Again, my idealism set me up for failure here. I expected that the administrator would be thrilled that I cared enough to ask these questions and was actively looking for ways that we could be more effective. Guess what? That was not the case. This administrator yelled at me for a good 10-15 minutes. (When he started with the words “How dare you”… I knew it was all downhill from there.)
Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence. (While writing this, I spent about 30 minutes sorting through a variety of stories I could have used here since I have so many examples!) Ultimately, the reason that people respond this way to the question “why” is because they are threatened. “Why” requires thoughtfulness and intentionality and sometimes, when you ask “why,” you’re highlighting the fact that there might not be a well-thought-out answer to your question. (Parents can get away with using, “Because I said so!” but that doesn't often go over so well with adults!)
After my experience with that administrator I vowed that “why” would become my favorite question! It would be the question I would encourage others to ask of me knowing full-well that there would be times that I wouldn’t have a good answer and I’d have to deal with that. In my estimation, when someone asks “why” of me, it either gives me the opportunity to get someone on-board with what I’m doing or it gives me the opportunity to consider an alternative perspective that I hadn’t before. I may have to suck up my pride and let down my defenses but, to me, it’s worth it! Either I’m winning someone over or I’m gaining perspective; in either case, it’s a win!
I also decided that I would always lead with the “why.” Both in personal relationships and in business situations, “why” is always the question I try to answer before it’s even asked. Why?
(See what I did there?) Because it shows where my focus is!
People who don’t like the question “why” often have their focus in the wrong place. Since their “why-aversion” is generally rooted in insecurity, their focus is on themselves and protecting their pride. By leading with the “why” and encouraging those I interact with to ask the question “why,” I’m putting my focus on those I’m in relationship with instead of myself. I’m forced to consider what would be compelling for them and how to best communicate that to them. I’m also letting them know that their thoughts are important to me… more important than my pride or insecurity.
What does this look like in your situation? Where is the focus of your boss? Of your friends? Of your significant other? (Of yourself?) Is asking good questions encouraged or does it get you into trouble? Do you allow others to ask questions of you?
If the focus of the significant players in your life is on themselves to the point that a question like “why” isn’t tolerated, it might be #Time2MoveOn!