“What” is often a better, and more accurate, word to use than “Why”. Here is why.

How many times have you been asked by someone, or you asked another person, “Why did you do that?” The most likely answer is: many times.

Well, when you were asked, “Why did you do that?”, what was your emotional reaction?

Probably, you became defensive, or maybe a bit anxious or angry, and you attempted to offer an excuse or a reason which would justify whatever you did and, at the same time, help you avoid getting in trouble.

If you felt anxious, you interpreted the question as challenging, or judging, what you did and as implying some sort of future negative consequence if your answer to the question was not satisfactory.

If you felt anger, you interpreted the question as inappropriately challenging. or judging, what you did and as intrusive. You saw this question as a threat to your autonomy, your judgement in choosing the action you took, or your competence.

Whether you felt anxiety or anger, your reaction was to defend yourself and you offered an excuse or justification for what you did.

The tendency of the word  “why” to elicit a defensive reaction is the reason you probably want to minimize using this word in your interactions with others. Especially, your kids.

I am not saying you should never use the word. Rather, I am suggesting you think about the reason for the question you are asking (Why you are asking it.) and the information you seek in the answer you receive.

When you ask a person, “Why did you do that?”, what you really want to know is:

  • What was the basis for your decision to (do what you did)?
  • What did you hope to accomplish (by doing what you did)?
  • What other alternatives did you consider (before you did what you did)?
  • What motivated you (to do what you did)?

Notice that all of these questions begin with “what” instead of “why”. The weakness of the word “why” is that our behavior is multi-determined.  In other words, there are many underlying reasons or motivations  for the actions we take. Consequently, when you are asked “why”, you may not, in most cases, exactly know why you did what you did.

Now, in some cases, you may know why?  For example, you can say why you chose to watch the football game instead of the cooking show or why you chose the iPhone over the google phone.  And so forth.

The word “what”, in contrast, focuses your attention on the choices you made or the reasons you used prior to taking the action in question.  If you think about it, this is the information you are actually seeking.

For the reason, the next time you question someone about an action they took, start your question with the word “what” followed by the information you want instead of the word “why”.

In so doing, you are mastering emotions because you are using your awareness of the emotional process to avoid eliciting an emotional reaction which may negatively impact your relationship with the other person.

If it is you to whom the question “why” is directed, master your emotions by not reacting to the implications of the question.  Rather, answer the question as if the word “what” instead of “why” had been used.

I welcome your comments.

3 thoughts on ““What” is often a better, and more accurate, word to use than “Why”. Here is why.”

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