Hearing that, how do you feel?
Yes, it depends on the circumstances and your partner’s tone. And your own socialization—e.g., it’s no biggie for a Vulcan (strictly logical) or a Pema Chodron (just another opportunity to practice).
The rest of us? Probably a bit closed down and defensive. That’s because when we were little and we asked 'why' questions, it came from a place of wonder and innocence. But when adults asked us 'why' questions, those questions had a finger-pointing quality. So that’s how we hear them. The “why” is experienced as code for “what’s wrong with you that…” The result: defensiveness and withdrawal that shuts discovery down.
To make matters worse, 'why' questions put us in our heads. But doing something illogical is often a sign of fear or other emotions at work—not logic. Trying to “figure out why” generates a mechanical explanation that removes us from what’s really going on. Insight more likely rests in our hearts!
What to do Instead--5 Alternatives
Whenever you’re about to ask a 'why' question, pause. Explore what you're really trying to accomplish. Are you actually wanting to complain? Or, truly curious about something?
- If it’s a complaint (“why is that jacket on the floor?”), decide if you really want to complain or not. If so, make it explicit. Use an I statement. (“I was upset to see your jacket on the floor.”) Don’t pretend to be curious when you’re not.
- If it’s curiosity about the purpose and intentions behind something, try “Can you say a bit more about your intentions and purpose behind that?” Or, “What’s motivating that?”
- If it’s about mechanism—say of a behavior--ask “what do you imagine leads that behavior to happen?” Probe for feelings!
- Inviting a reframe? Rather than ask a question that implies there’s something wrong with the person, ask something like “What do you imagine might be the positive intention behind that behavior” Dysfunction often comes from young parts of us that want to help. They’re resorting to old strategies vital to past survival that don’t work in our present. Gentle invitation works better than blame!
- And, if you inadvertently start with a 'why' question, it’s ok to stop, and ask for a redo. “Oh, I just realized I started in a way that might have sounded blaming and put you in your head. I'm sorry. Can I have a do-over?”
Well, it seems to work better in print. And “Why not?” has a different energy than “Why.” Also, there’s a whole industry focused on understanding our greater why—it’s intrinsic to my Core Intention work, for example. Finally, much of 'why' question damage originates in our own mixed intentions. So, pausing to make sure we’re coming from a place of compassion and curiosity, and then putting that positive energy into a wonder-filled 'why' question can work.
But it’s hardly ever necessary to ask why--and frequently dangerous. There are better ways. Use them!