Whether I ask it out loud or think it to myself, asking “why” is a critical part of how I learn and understand the world around me. However it hadn’t really dawned on me until several years ago that many people do not use the same approach. I wonder why so few people appear to engage themselves or others with the reasoning behind subject matter. When people ask questions, why does the focus tend to be on what, where, when or how? Perhaps the tendency for those of us who ask these types of broader discovery, and “big picture” why-type questions is the manifestation of a certain personality type. It’s also possible that more people would consider asking more of these types of questions, but they are in a hurry and think they’ll save time by getting to the details as soon as they can.
Finding the Reason behind Statements
So why ask why? The simple answer is that “why” questions are useful and provide a reason. In my past, with jobs in product development and in my current job as a small business grants specialist, I have found that asking why I’m doing things is an effective means of building understanding before digging deeper into the details. The details can then be better understood and remembered as they are connected in a broader context.
Consider the example of a film or theatrical play. Are you able to remember the characters better from observing the story or from simply viewing a cast of characters? The cast’s details and personalities are better appreciated as they are observed from a story rather than in a detailed reference list. Therefore the context of what’s being learned is what builds the connection between the subject matter and our perceptions of importance.
The Importance of “Why” for Analytical Thinking
“Why” questions are the types of questions that force one to step back and think more analytically. Do you sometimes get so lost in details that you end up developing a project plan that deviates from the initial project goal? Creeping scope is a common project pitfall, and having worked for government and large corporations, I have seen it happen several times. What’s the benefit of focusing on specific details if broader goals and objectives are misunderstood? If someone can’t articulate why they are doing something, is there any good reason for continuing the action? Failure to answer these most basic of questions suggests they should focus on gaining more insight before executing.
Next time you are faced with a decision, ask why, or what the context is behind making the choice. When first meeting with a client or customer, think of how to engage them at a higher level, where solutions to chronic issues or discovery of new opportunities are more easily found. Why are they in need of assistance? Focus on that above all for increased engagement and accelerated business success. If you get lost in any details other than “why”, bring your actions back to the central goal. The reasons for doing something shouldn’t be an afterthought; they should be a driving force.
Remember that with the great power of “why” comes responsibility! As we all have different communication styles, asking some people too many “why” questions can interfere with their ability to focus and accomplish tasks. Learn to recognize the power and the reason behind what you’re doing and when to ask. Not only will this drive more effective conversations and exchanges, it may also save time and energy.