In a coaching context, asking “why” questions can be problematic. They can often give results that we did not intend and should be used carefully and sparingly.
- can trigger the amygdala, causing a survival response.
- attract system 1 answers, resulting in superficial conversations that aren’t helpful.
- may trigger a response from the Interpreter, resulting in made up answers that have little bearing on reality.
- may cause the client to give more power to the thing we’re discussing, making it harder for them to get the change they want.
Let’s look at each of these.
“Why” questions can trigger the amygdala
The amygdala is the entry point for our survival mechanism. If the amygdala detects a potential danger, it will initiate one of the basic survival responses of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. A why question that is intepreted by the amygdala as being accusatory, will activate one of those responses.
“Why” is provocative and puts people on the defensive. In this case the team leader will need to summon up a justification for her team’s recommendation and the feeling is she will have to prove her case against her boss who already thinks she’s wrong. It’s the implied “why do you” part of the question that is the problem1
This is particularly true when the person asking the why questions is perceived as having higher social status. Our social status and how we think of ourselves has direct connection to our survival. See the SAFETY model of psychological safety.
“Why” questions attract System 1 answers
On average, our brain accounts for 2% of our body mass and yet consumes 20% of the energy that we use while awake2. We have evolved to minimize that energy use so wherever possible, our brains would like to return an answer that had already been calculated rather than calculating it again.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow3, Daniel Kahneman talks about System 1 that returns answers quickly and uses little energy and System 2 that moves much slower and takes much more energy. System 1 answers, while fast, are not always good answers. System 1 tends to jump to conclusions, especially about cause and effect4, and are informed by cognitive bias.
Asking “why” will attract System 1 answers. They’ll be fast but often not as helpful as a System 2 answer would have been.
“Why” questions may trigger a response from the Interpreter
The interpreter is the name given to the system that pulls the pieces together into a coherent story. This takes place in the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex. It takes in all the chaotic information and makes sense of it by linking causes and effect and then construction our mental models. We them behave according to these mental models and are freed from simple stimulus/response behaviour4
Joseph O’Connor, Andrea Lades
If a well thought out answer doesn’t already exist, the Interpreter will create an answer that sounds highly plausible and yet has little bearing on reality.
Imagine that I notice that you just picked up a pen. If I ask “why did you pick up that pen?”, you’ll likely have no idea. It will have been an unconscious movement that was outside conscious awareness. Yet when I ask, the Interpreter will make up a reason right there in the moment. That answer will sound reasonable and you might even believe it to be true, but it will be a lie. It was a fabricated answer, created after the fact.
Questions beginning with “why” do not work well in coaching. They encourage justification, and the interpreter jumps in with a feasible explanation4
Joseph O’Connor, Andrea Lades
“Why” questions may cause the client to give more power to the thing we’re discussing
When we ask why about a thing, we make it stronger. The client will believe their own rationales, whether they make sense or not, and give more power to that.
When we ask why in response to problems, the explanation can solidify the rationale for the problem and nudges them further into permanent ownership of the problem. We’ve invited the problem to gain power over them.1
Sometimes this effect can be helpful at the end of a coaching session. If you’ve already decided on a course of action then I can help make it more real for you by asking “Why do you think this action will get you closer to your goal?” The justifications that you come up with are only going to help you ensure that you take the action.
Asking that question when we’re still talking about the problem state, however, is going to make the problem stronger and that’s the wrong outcome.
Does this mean that we should never ask why? Absolutely not. Sometimes we want the effects that come from this. Sometimes we’ve preframed the conversation to avoid the problems or are unconcerned about the effects due to other steps we’ve taken.
The point is that we should be aware of the problems that can come from “why” questions and should use them deliberately and consciously, where we feel they are helpful. If we aren’t sure, it’s safest to ask a different question.
Forbes article by David Marquet: Avoid Asking Why, And What Good Leaders Say Instead ↩ ↩2
“Before you know it: The unconscious reasons we do what we do”, John Bargh, PhD. One of the classic books on priming. ↩
“Coaching the Brain: Practical Applications of Neuroscience to Coaching”, Joseph O’Connor, Andrea Lades ↩ ↩2 ↩3