[Coaching Tips] Ask “What,” Not “Why”

As a king of curiousity, there are lots of ways to get information: some are just much better than others.

But in the land of curiosity and getting information, some ways of asking questions are better than others – and the case of Why versus What, one is considerably more effective.

All this came to mind courtesy Dan Martell‘s tweet “I ask ‘Why?’ a lot, do you?” with a link to Seth Godin’s post “Why ask Why?” [Disclosure: I’m a customer of Martell and co-founder Ethan Bloch’s Flowtown.]

As a guy who spends his life coaching execs and teams, little changes can frequently make significant differences. This is one of them. In fact, in work with clients like Genentech, managers have learned ways to manage better by simply asking questions more effectively.

Without doing a deep dive into the psychology that exists behind it, asking Why generates rationalization, and not uncommonly defensiveness. Try this next time you go home and you’ll see: “Honey, why are we having fish tonight?” – and you might get a response like “What’s the matter with fish?”

A much more effective way is to ask a What questions such as “What makes you choose” or “What caused you to consider”, etc. And while it’s not a What, something like How as in “How did you happen to. . . ” works too. Same idea: get data and information, and avoid getting a rationalization response. Strangely enough, my hunch is that Why Not courtesy Barry Nalebuff likely elicits a less defensive response.

The dinner question above becomes “What made you think of having fish tonight” and gives you the response of “It was the only thing we had in the fridge.”

Not too different than the words just or but, certain words trigger an emotional response. Why is one of those words: it frequently says to folks “Be prepared to explain – and maybe defend – what you’re doing.” And in doing so, it elicits a rationalization response rather than just plain data.

The same thing, applies by the way, when interviewing people: ask what, not why questions and you’ll get richer, better information.

Far better to get facts, rather than rationalization. And asking What rather than Why does it for you.