Try "What" Questions Instead of "Why" Questions... for Richer Connections

"Why" questions vs. "what" questions

I once worked with one client on the phone and by e-mail. He was having a painful series of encounters with his five year old about various conflicts (such as getting up to go to school, etc.)

He asked me a couple of times "why does she do that" and made clear he had asked her the same.

I passed on to him one tip I picked up from Marshall -- that "why" questions have a different (and often less lifeserving) dynamic than "what" or "how" questions and gave him some examples of the difference.

(Very relevant, also, was my own experience of being on the receiving end of "why" questions; in those situations I experience both confusion about what the asker was feeling and wanting, as well as finding out that often the speaker was not wanting the information they were supposedly asking for but expressing pain.)

Anyway, for this father I suggested for "homework" that next time when in a conflict if he felt the impulse to ask a "why" that he stop and translate it to "what" or "how."

Here, below, is the email I got back a week later. I found it both encouraging and insightful ... as well as being a reminder for me to notice when I'm asking "why" in a context where "what" "what needs" and/or "how" might create richer connections.

I hope your reading it does the same for you.



----- Original Message -----

From: S.V. (Name removed) To: Alex Censor Subject: NVC assignment

Hi Alex,

In response to the assignment you gave me to write down my typical "WHY" questions, and convert them to "WHAT" and "HOW" questions, I wrote some out Sunday night to replace my usual

"Why don't you want to go to school?", which always gets me nowhere productive with Jill. I suspected I would need them in the morning.

I tried them out Monday morning in response to my daughter's routine resistance to getting up and ready for preschool each morning, and I was quite surprised and delighted by how much less resistance I got from her, and how quickly we got "on a similar page".

I asked Jill, "What don't you like about going to preschool today?"

I learned new information about what was bothering my daughter about going to preschool, at least that morning. She said that when the teachers are temporarily distracted, the boys try to pinch the girls.

I would not have ever discovered that this morning with my WHY questions, I think.

Other questions I wrote down were:

"What is it about going to preschool today that you don't like?

"What can we do to make preschool more fun for you today?

"How can we make preschool more fun for you today?"

"What do you like _least_ about going to preschool?"

"How can we fix it so that the thing you like least about preschool won't be as much of a problem?"

I also wrote down some "Why?" questions I have asked or would like to ask my wife:

"Why do you start crying whenever I try to discuss a conflict or difference of opinion between us?"

"Why do you often comment on only the downside you see in some house project I have completed, and rarely seem to comment on any advantages of it to us?"

"Why do you seem to keep score as to our relative contributions to our household?"

"Why do you make remarks about my behavior to yourself just under your breath, particularly when we are both doing something the kitchen?"

I haven't gotten to converting the above to "What?" or "How?" questions yet.

I think that the most pernicious "Why?" questions are the ones I torture mySELF with.

"Why aren't you more successful, intelligent, creative, ETC..?"

"Why are you so stupid? "Why do you do such stupid things?"

"Why have you made such rotten choices, decisions, ETC. in life.?"

"Why do you say such stupid things to people?"

I suspect avoiding "WHY" questions, and using "HOW?" and "WHAT?", instead, might lead to more insight and less conflict in discussing an 'emotionally charged' issue with J[daughter]l and P[the wife], and possibly also with myself.

I will keep working on this assignment, as it seems to be bearing some fruit.



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