The danger of “why” questions

Most thoughtful counselees want to ask “why” questions. Why do I do what I do? Why did she do what she did? Why am I the way I am? Why am I so depressed? Why isn’t my life going the way it should or seems to go for others? Counselors too ask “why” questions. Why did you blow up at her? Why is this child afraid of going to school? And closer to home, why did my client drop out of therapy?

On the surface why questions seem to want to get to the bottom of things. We assume that if we understand the nature of the problem, we’ll know how best to respond. And there is much truth in this assumption. 

But consider their danger. Some answers to the “why” are so complex that the answer to the “why” doesn’t really point to any one answer. Further, we frequently prejudge the question with implicit answers (e.g., it is because something is wrong with me…I’m a loser…God doesn’t want me to be happy…I can’t help it that I’m this way…).

Why questions also make us passive. We look for answers; we mull over the “facts.” We are less likely to become active to do something about our situation when we are in a “why…” mode.

Let me suggest a better kind of question: What questions

What is happening? What am I feeling/thinking/doing? What is it that I want? What do others want? What am I doing about my situation? What goals do my behaviors emphasize? (this is a why question that forces us to look at our behaviors and see if they match up with our stated desires) What options are before me? Be descriptive rather than interpretive. Notice that why questions jump to interpretation but seldom activate a person to do what is in their power to do.

Frequently, by asking descriptive “what” questions, we find it easier to activate the will and begin doing something about our situation. In addition, we often come to posthoc understanding of the “why” when we have some distance from the situation.

So, the next time you find yourself stuck in the “why” set of questions, stop and try to ask yourself some what questions instead. Observe the impact of distancing from the passive whys? Does it help?


Filed under Anxiety, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology

5 responses to “The danger of “why” questions

  1. I agree, on so many levels. I had a counselor who would ask variants of “why”. He was usually digging for one answer, but as I’d ponder the why behind whatever it was, I’d come up with five or eight contributing factors. It was helpful, but not so much in the way he’d envisioned :-).

    In another situation, my 12 year old daughter feels like if she can just understand “why” I separated from her Dad four years ago and why we later divorced, things will be easier for her. I try to help her understand that why is a bit of a bottomless and pointless pit. She’s heard her Dad’s side of the story, unfortunately, and she feels like understanding mine will help her. In reality, though, understanding won’t bring the comfort or resolution that she longs for. It will only put her in the middle of adult complexities that adults have not been able to resolve. You’ve given me some helpful things to think about as I continue to help her process dealing with this painful part of her life.

    And finally, a good friend recommended to me several years ago to try to avoid asking my kids why they have done something wrong–as if the why somehow could justify it… Instead she recommends asking them to identify what was wrong about what they did in very simple terms. I give my kids three categories to think in terms of–it was unkind, it was disrespectful or it was disobedient. Sometimes a wrong action is more than one of those. But it does seem to help the kids move away from justifying or excusing their behavior. I still sometimes instinctively ask “why”–I think almost as a filler when I’m trying to think of how to deal with a child in a particular situation. But I think the why is always among the lesser helpful options.

  2. Lou Buses

    Great observation. We have basically done away with “why” questions in our counseling and I tell my counselors and counseling couples that they can not ask each other “why” questions. As you point out, asking this question takes away from the search for action that will resolve the issue. Also, when the “why” question is asked by the one who is upset in a situation the expected answer is: “I was stupid! I was malicious! I just wanted to hurt (get back at) you! I’m a looser! etc.”

  3. Jess

    Thanks for the great questions here. Many good ones, and “What is happening?” and “What goals do my behaviors emphasize?” especially jump out at me.

  4. Ruth Bauman

    A counselor once told me, in answer to my concern about why someone had hurt me, that my ‘why’s’ were trying to get rid of the pain, and they would never do that. Only Jesus could resolve that hurt for me in his healing of me and my forgivness of the one that wronged me. That helped me immensely in my journey through the sorrow and pain by letting me see Christ’s work as all sufficient.

  5. I’ve always been fascinated by the “why” of things. Why do some companies succeed when others fail? Why do people behave how they do? And the biggest: why are we here? It’s that search for answers that drove me to study Psychology and Political Science in college.

    One of the great strengths of Christianity is that it answers the “why” of our existence. It gives us the context of “why.”

    But I can see how if you only ever think about “why” you’ll get bogged down. Most “why” questions seem to break down into “what” action steps.

    My natural reaction has always been to ask “why” and go from there. Maybe I need to consider starting at the “what” more often….

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