About 10 days ago, I was having a conversation with a colleague who I value so much for his ability to challenge common thought. No conversation with Andrew ends with the words “just as I thought”! During this conversation, we settled into discussing the word why and more specifically questions that start with that word. My colleague and I agreed to monitor how many times another adult asked us an impactful question that started with the word why.

For reference, my colleague is a senior sales leader. He is also a student of humanity and the resulting intersection of his work and his passion lends a unique window on our world. In the course of our discussion he mentioned the work of Simon Sinek, the author of the book “Start with Why”. I’ve heard of Simon and his book, but have to admit that I have not yet read it. So I found Simon’s talk on TEDx and listened to that. It is a fascinating view on marketing. In it he claims that the ordinary company builds their marketing program around the word what. The great companies start their program from the word why. He states “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

Why do I tolerate Canadian winters?

The root of this apparently lives within the structure of our brains. My post last week dug into neuroscience and how the various layers of our brain affect how we engage a situation, and apparently the words why and what act on different regions. When we tell someone what we do we engage the rational pre-frontal cortex of our brain. When we tell someone why we do what we do, we engage the limbic system, the centre of our emotions. So this makes sense. We are more likely to buy something when it engages us emotionally.

When I turn my attention to my learnings as a coach, one of the very first things we were taught was that coaches don’t ask why. We ask what or how. The premise here is that when a question starts with what or how it is more likely to be perceived as free of judgment, advice, opinion, bias, etc. than a question that starts with why. What’s this all about? Essentially why continues its pattern of engaging the limbic system, but this time because judgment, advice, opinion, bias, etc. can be perceived as threats.

Back to my discussion with my colleague. He was completely correct. In the intervening two weeks, I can’t recall being asked a single question that started with the word why. Why is that? 🙂

That is a rhetorical question as obviously we have learned that why can be a threat, and we have learned that threats are not appropriate behaviour. But it leaves the question about how why became to be perceived as a threat in the first place! My colleague proposes that it lies in the heart of a young child.

What is the favourite question of a pre-schooler? Why! How do we respond to this question as parents? Often with what we perceive as love and patience, but perhaps after the umpteenth time we start to show a little exasperation or even if we don’t do that perhaps the nature of our answer somehow seeps into the child as a reflection on their capabilities to figure things out, and judgment becomes attached to the question. It becomes taboo.

Why does Teflon stick to the pan?

As a leader, I want the question why in my arsenal. When we ask it without judgment it is all of powerful, curious, questing, revealing, and promises growth. So the trick is to make it safe to ask why so that we can stay in our amazing human pre-frontal brains to process it to its fullest extent. How do we do that? There are probably too many ways to count, but what really comes to mind for me is that we make sure that our people know that they are the best person to be doing what they are doing and therefore they are absolutely the person that I want to express my curiosity to with respect to their area of expertise. We also need to know when we ourselves are feeling threatened and thus are working from emotion. When this is happening, it probably isn’t the best time to be asking why as it will come from a place of fear/threat and therefore evoke the same in those we are asking it of.

How does this resonate with you? Does it make sense? Do you currently ask people why? Will you join a quest to re-introduce this wonderfully curious question to our toolkit?

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

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