Unless it’s the Backstreet Boys asking you to tell them why it’s nothing but a heartache, the word ‘why’ can be a trigger.
Why ‘why’ though?
In a recent lengthy post on her blog, life coach and wellness expert Rebecca Berry examined the problem surrounding the word ‘why’. While she maintains that on most occasions the word why can be quite helpful to understand “nitty gritty problems”, it’s not so helpful when it comes to understanding a person’s behaviour. Moreover, it can usually derail a conversation. “How you frame your questions can make all the difference between a great conversation with a positive outcome, and a difficult conversation that leaves you both frustrated,” she explains.
‘Why’ can be accusatory
It can seem innocent, but when you ask someone ‘why’ they made a certain decision, or took a certain action, they feel the need to justify themselves. The word ‘why’ can also evoke a defensive reaction in people. It can be seen as a provocation, as the person feels their actions have been questioned. The problem lies usually with the statement “Why did you…”
Dubai-based psychologist and wellness expert Charlotte Spurway illustrates with an example. “For instance, when one partner tells the other, ‘Why did you not do the laundry’, what they really could mean is that they feel unsupported and tired, as they’re managing so many other things too. This isn’t communicated, and instead, it makes the other feel defensive and upset. They feel they’re not doing enough."
“The word ‘why’ is seen as nagging and accusatory. It is also demanding and confrontational, putting the other person on the backfoot, be it your partner, colleague or employee. The other partner feels under-appreciated, and this triggers a fight-or-flight response,” says Spurway.
The word ‘why’ can be seen as nagging and accusatory. The other person can feel under-appreciated, and this triggers a fight-or-flight response..
The question beginning with “Why aren’t you doing xyz?” is accusatory in tone and leads to the other person arguing, “I’m also doing other things…” This applies to workplaces especially, as it leads to a feeling of pressure on the employees, as well as fuels their belief that they aren’t being appreciated enough. The word ‘why’ can also be interpreted as a sign of exasperation, when you ask someone, “Why didn’t you just….” Indicating that you didn’t have faith in the decision they took, and robbing them of their own agency.
At this point, both sides are unable to communicate their needs effectively, and this results in further argument and anger, Spurway says.
Linked to childhood experiences
People can get triggered by certain words, including why, which reminds them of their past experiences in childhood, explains Bushra Khan, transformation coach and holistic psychotherapist at Dubai-based clinic Wellth. These kind of words evoke pressure and sound interrogatory, explains Khan.
For instance, their parents would have scolded them asking them ‘why’ questions. It would have always been, “why did you not do your homework” and “why did you not clean up you room”. This would have induced guilt and fear in the child, making them feel more defensive and ready to provide justifications.
A parent reprimanding their teenager for not studying enough and focusing more on playing sports, is another example. The parent will tell the child, “Why aren’t you doing your work?” The child feels more rebellious and angry, as they would probably already feel overwhelmed after a long day and are in need of some downtime. The parent is indirectly telling the child that they want to succeed. Instead, their tone turns out accusatory and interrogatory. Once again, neither side is able to express their thoughts in a more positive manner, owing to this phrasing of a question.
This resentment becomes more evident in the case of teenagers, who wish to have more autonomy and independence from their parents. So when parents use the word ‘why’, it sounds judgmental and interrogatory signals, and a lack of belief in their child’s judgement.
Khan explains, "Sometimes people don't know what triggers others and they use words that seem normal or ask such questions. So if you ask someone 'why are you coming late', it evokes a defensive reaction, as it is associated with a past experience."
‘Why’ can be judgmental
Why were you so late? Why did you do that? Why are you wearing that?
While ‘why’ is normally an open-ended question, it does not elicit fresh and powerful answers, according to self-help author and life coach Will Wise in his book, Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations That Matter. There’s a sense of judgment that the other person feels, and they either choose to defend, justify themselves, or not engage at all. So, he advises that if you find people responding to your questions with a certain amount of aggression, negativity or defensiveness, they are reacting to your judgement. So drop the ‘why’, and try to use words like how or what, and reframe your questions.
Drop the ‘whys’, use the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’
Spurway calls this manner of careful rephrasing the “sandwich effect”. It’s all about ensuring positive and direct communication, she explains. “For example, if you see that your employee, colleague or subordinate is not focusing on a particular task or doing something else that you asked, do not go and ask ‘why are you doing…’. Start with friendly validation first,” she says.
Ask them if they’re doing well or if they’ve overworked. Once you establish this level of communication, they will be more open to discussion. “Instead of asking ‘why’ they are not doing what you asked, ask how they can change their strategy,” she says.
Similarly, in the case of the parent and their child, the parent should lead the conversation with a positive affirmation. “For instance, if the child wants to play tennis and not do their homework, the parent needs to let them know the importance of doing their work too, without being aggressive,” explains Spurway. So you can use words like, “ ‘Let’s think about doing your homework’ and then after that we can play tennis as well,” she adds.
Wise also explains the usage of ‘how’ and ‘what’ as a replacement for ‘why’:
“Why did you do this?” becomes “How did this happen?”
“Why do you think like that?” becomes “How is it that you learned that?” or “How did you come to that understanding?”
He explains that when you create questions for which people do not feel the need to defend themselves, the questions change. The word ‘you’ is reduced. The word ‘you’ in a sentence can be perceived as a direct attack on the person, you are talking to, rather than what you are talking about. “Are we talking about ‘me’ or this thing around me?”
Here’s another example:
First, “Why did you complete that so fast?”
This question has a lot of judgement, which will see the person defending themselves, proving both the outcome and the process of how they got there.
Second, “How did you complete that so fast?”
This question has a lot of curiosity attached to it, and it is regarding an observation. The person will reply by explaining what they did. They might still look for ways to defend themselves, as the word ‘you’ might make them believe they’re still being attacked.
Third, “How was that completed so fast?”
We need to foster an environment for clearer and more positive communication, so that eventually the triggers reduce for someone. When you know someone is triggers, have a conversation, encourage them to reflect on their actions and ask them, 'what does it remind you of', and allow that person to talk about it freely, so that eventually the triggers subside
As you can see, the question is now focused about the process and not the person. They don’t feel the need to defend themselves, and there’s more room for open conversations.
However, while these words seem beneficial, Khan provides a different perspective saying, "We need to foster an environment for clearer and more positive communication, so that eventually the triggers reduce for someone. When you know someone is triggers, have a conversation, encourage them to reflect on their actions and ask them, 'what does it remind you of', and allow that person to talk about it freely, so that eventually the triggers subside."