Ways To Ask Why Without Asking Why


How to obtain the information you need in a sneaky but efficient manner

If there is one question that almost everyone avoids asking in business settings, it is “Why?” Why is this so? Wait a minute don’t answer just yet. You’ve most likely heard of the 5 Whys. Quoted frequently, but rarely implemented I recall being in a meeting at a former workplace where internal politics were intense, and a leader specifically recommending that we not directly ask our stakeholders why. This leader believes that asking why is offensive or pushy.

That strategy struck me as ineffective and wasteful at the time. Isn’t a straight line the shortest distance between two points? So, why is there a straight line? I still believe in being direct today, but I also understand the reluctance to poke the bear. When asked incorrectly, “Why?” becomes an unnecessarily risky question. According to my observations, many people avoid asking why because many people dislike answering why, and this is because it forces transparency, which creates vulnerability. Vulnerability is dangerous in the absence of trust. Have you ever noticed how two people who truly know each other have no qualms about asking each other, “Why?” That kind of trust, however, is uncommon at work.

Transparency exposes things that people would rather keep hidden motivations, beliefs, attitudes, biases, and so on. That doesn’t necessarily imply malicious intent. It could simply mean they aren’t ready to discuss something yet, don’t have the authority to do so, or simply don’t know the answer to your question. Regardless, transparency is unpleasant, so it is preferable to avoid it. Many people avoid asking why because many people don’t like answering why, which forces transparency, which creates vulnerability.

Why do we need to enquire?

We should all agree that we should always ask why, especially in business analysis and product management. Why are we carrying out this task? Why hadn’t this work been done earlier? What is the significance of this? Why does this not matter? Why isn’t that person present at this meeting? Why is it that leadership does not want to go in that direction? Why do you require that specific metric? What is the significance of this right now? Why do users react in this manner? Why did this not work? These are just a few of the critical questions that can help us uncover issues, causes, beliefs and attitudes, motivations, roadblocks, and underlying desires that either move us towards or away from our goals. We need to diagnose a problem first so that we can treat it effectively, right? The answers to these questions are important, which is why they must be asked.

How to Ask Why Without Being Obnoxious

Now that we’ve established why we need to ask why, let’s look at how to ask why without actually saying it. As it happens, there are several ways to accomplish this. The majority of them include the words what and how. This is how the transition to these words works. What implies curiosity, whereas why can be accusatory. “Why did you do that?” can put someone on the defensive, making them feel as if they need to justify their actions. That’s fine during cross-examination, but you might want to ask a different question when working with stakeholders or your team. What opens the doors is what closes them. “What were you trying to accomplish?” is a gentler and less pointed way of getting to the bottom of why someone chose a particular course of action. You’ll most likely get more useful responses as well. Similarly, rephrasing questions with the word how can lead to fruitful discussions. In a team meeting where everyone is upset about something, asking “How did we get here?” is the same as asking “Why is everyone so upset?” but is a more emotionally intelligent question that will steer the discussion away from blame and towards resolution. On that note, here are some creative ways to ask why without actually using the word.

15 Ways to Ask Why Without Saying Why

When determining the root cause

These questions will assist you in determining how an issue arose so that you can determine how to resolve it. Business analysts, technical support staff, and team leaders need to think outside the box to figure out how something got so messed up, and these are some ideas. These questions can also help parents! They can be substituted for “Why did you/they do that?” “Why didn’t you/they do that?” and “Why is it like this?”

  1. What was going on at the time this happened?
  2. What were you hoping to achieve?
  3. How did you think we ended up here?
  4. What could have caused this situation?
  5. What went wrong?

When determining motivation

Sometimes you really need to understand why someone is asking you a question. This is important when deciding on priorities and making decisions. However, motivations are often personal, and people are hesitant to disclose them or simply lack the words to express them (because our brains work like this). That means you must identify motivations. You can use these queries in place of “Why do you want/need this?” inquiries.

  1. What happens if we don’t complete this task?
  2. What are your plans for this/that?
  3. What are your priorities in this situation?
  4. What issues does this/that address?
  5. How does this/that solve the problem?

When evaluating something’s worth

Stakeholders submit requests for items that are significant to them. But how significant are those factors to the business, product, and end users? The task of creating value falls to business analysts and project managers, therefore it’s critical to discover ways to assess whether something is worthwhile without making people feel threatened. Instead of asking “Why does this/that matter?” queries, use these.

  1. What do you think will happen if we have to delay this/that?
  2. What occurs if we fail to do this?
  3. How does this/that fit into our overall plan?
  4. What other options are there for resolving this problem?
  5. What else have you attempted or ought we to try? (Indirect but effective)

When analysing a managerial choice or procedure

Why did the leadership choose to act in a particular manner? Who among us wouldn’t want to know? Sadly, there are times when executives make choices and cascade them without providing justification. Just stating, “This is the decision,” can be simpler. Especially when there is an emotional undercurrent, just go with it. Understanding the rationale behind a choice or process in business analysis might help us determine its genuine worth. When we don’t fully get the significance of the why, we run the risk of making changes that make problems worse. The same goes for failing to make changes that were necessary because we believed the reasoning for a choice was more compelling than it actually was.

Instead of asking a leader or leadership team, “Why did you decide that way?,” or “Why are we doing it this way?,” utilise these questions. and similar poke-the-bear questions. Some are incredibly direct without having to explain themselves, while others are excruciatingly oblique (but I promise you that the why will come out in the answers).

  1. Why did we choose this course of action?
  2. What are your long-term predictions for this?
  3. Can you describe the whole picture?
  4. What was the purpose of that/that?
  5. How does this assist? (Pro tip: stop there. (Avoid including “to you,” “to us,” etc.)

Another suggestion for success with this

Give folks time to answer when you ask them a question. Accept a little period of silence. One at a time, and avoid the impulse to explain your meaning before you get a response. There is no need for clarification for these simple inquiries. You’re probably just trying to fill the silence if you find yourself clarifying. Avoid doing that. More information is revealed the more they talk.

Make up your own approaches to enquire “why”

As you can see, the list’s questions all lead to the same kinds of solutions in slightly different ways. You can use them to ask pretty much anything you want. For instance, you might want to know why particular dashboard numbers are significant. You might be wondering why this guy even needs the dashboard. You may now determine that in a few different ways. No matter what your specific use case is, remember that you may and should enquire further to learn more about requests, problems, and choices. You were presumably employed to assist with problem solving. Well, probing questions are usually necessary for problem solutions!

The examples above should help you find the solutions you need to address problems swiftly and without pushing buttons if your workplace is politically or culturally sensitive. Good fortune!

Hi, I’m Garima and I write about life experiences. I have several books available on Amazon. Check them out today! Any purchases or KDP reads will be greatly appreciated. If you like my books, do leave a review. Here’s my author page on Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0BQDZXYNV


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lori says:

    Very interesting ideas here. I gave up working in an office quite some time ago – the office politics were too much for me.

    However, my husband works in a business now with an office setting. He shares with me how things are going on occasion. He likes to use the word “opportunity.” For example: “What can we learn from this, and how can we turn it into an opportunity?”
    Or: What opportunities can we create for our *name mission* today?

    And sometimes using the word “you” can sound accusatory. If it’s possible, and sometimes it’s not, try to replace the word with something else. As in: “What are your plans for this/that?” It can be, “What are the plans for this/that?”

    I’ll share your post with my husband so he can gain some of your insights, too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. GS says:

      These are some great examples you have shared with us Lori. Thank you so much.

      Liked by 1 person

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