Imagine you answer the phone and your client, or your boss, slams you with one of these:
Why did you tell them?
Why haven’t you done it?
Why would you write that?
Why isn’t it ready for the meeting?
Do you feel defensive just reading them? The innocent three letters, “why” can carry a lot of weight. It can sound like you are interrogating someone. It can sound like an accusation.
Very often people answer by defending what they’ve done, rather than dealing with the real issue.
What is really going on
If it’s important and you need to understand what’s happened, try starting the questions you ask with the word “What” rather than “why”.
Here are those same questions again:
What made you feel the need to tell them? What did you think telling them would do for us?
What do you need to get this done soon?
What did you want to accomplish when you wrote that?
What will it take to get this ready for the meeting?
Compare these questions with the ones above. Do you have a different set of answers in your head now?
Framing questions so they start with “What” is a simple discipline that can make a big difference in the way people respond to you.
One sizes doesn’t fit all
Of course “what” questions aren’t always appropriate.
There are times you want to ask closed ended questions that elicit a Yes or No answer. There’s times when you need to use Who, When and How to get the information you need.
But as an easy way to break a defensive conversation loop, try asking a question that starts with “What”. You’ll be surprised how often this prompts a solution.