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Let’s replace “Why” with “What”

What happens to your body when someone asks you a question starting with “why?”. Do you tense up or automatically go into defense? In sessions, I try my best to steer clear of using the word “why” when asking questions unless it is to clarify a previous statement from my client or to gain clarity.

According to Inc. Magazine, a former FBI Hostage Investigator reported that asking people “why” can make them go into defense and often feels more like an accusation than a true question. By starting conversations with ‘why’, it can send off signals of judgement, and indicate a lack of trust in our client’s own judgement.

To be honest, the “why” is not so much important as the “what”. For all my parents out there, when was the last time you asked your kids this:

· “Why are you doing that?”

· “Why did you leave your clothes on the floor?”

· “Why haven’t you done your homework?”

Instead ask:

· “I see that you have not done what I have asked. Is everything okay?”

· “I see you have homework tonight. What can I do to make sure it gets done in a timely manner?”

When you asked these questions, what type of answer did you get back? Were you met with defense behaviors and big emotions? When talking with others, especially in therapy, it is important to be clear in our communication with our clients to ensure we are coming from an unbiased stance. As a therapist, it is more important to understand what is driving my client’s problematic behavior then asking them “why” they are doing it. In most case scenarios, we do not understand why we do thing’s, and our clients are coming to us to gain tools so they can gain awareness or insight.

Replacing “Why” with “What”

When communicating with others, it is important to be intentional, clear, and concise. In session, I often use Socratic Questioning. Socratic questioning differs from standard questioning in that it is “systematic, disciplined, deep and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems.” In other words, Socratic questioning was developed to get to the very core of a problem effectively and efficiently.

In sessions, I often practice replacing “why” with “what”. For example, if a client is struggling with why they participate in a problem behavior, I will ask, “what about this behavior is problematic for you?” or “what do you believe drives this behavior?”. I have noticed throughout my practice that utilizing “what” helps individuals get to the core of the problem without unknowingly going into defense mode. This is also a strategy I use with my clients who participate in negative self-talk. When talking to yourself, try asking yourself “what drives this behavior?” instead of “why am I like this?”. You may be surprised at the response or insight you have after just simply changing one word!

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