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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?

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