How Avoiding “Why?” Can Improve Your Business Communication

By John E. Trombley, MMgt
The Village Business Institute

In my last blog post, “A better question to ask,” I explored the metamorphosis I experienced when I learned to ask myself the question, “What?” versus “Why?” Today, I want to visit with you about the difference in those two simple questions as they apply to what we ask other people.

We’re not talking rocket science here, but as I am fond of saying—the really important things in life are simple, but the simple things are hard to do because they require us to discipline ourselves to make a change. In this case, what I am suggesting is making a minor adjustment—flipping a switch—in the way we talk to other people.

The impact of changing how we ask a question of the people around us is no less profound than when we changed the questions we asked ourselves. Let me give you an example. You’re working on a project with a few co-workers and you meet once a week to compare individual progress. One coworker has taken an unorthodox approach to the project, which you find both intriguing and provocative. You’re excited about the possibilities, so naturally you are curious to learn more about what this person is thinking and how they came to take this particular approach. So you simply ask, “Why did you do it that way, Charlie?” The next thing you know, Charlie goes on the defense and the climate in the room quickly turns from collegial to adversarial. You find yourself trying to back pedal out of a very uncomfortable conversation without really understanding how you got there.

So what happened? Think about the last time someone asked you why you did something. How did it make you feel? Did you feel as though you were being challenged to defend your work? To many people, that is exactly what it feels like. It’s as though what they did wasn’t good enough or was wrong in some way, when often times the person asking the question just wants to learn more. Now, you can blow this off by thinking that some people just need to get thicker skin, but if you really care about how you come across to other people and you recognize the power of building respectful relationships, you might try asking a slightly different question: one that will open the other person up rather than shut them down.

The next time you find yourself about to ask why someone did something, try asking something like this: “Did you get the results you were hoping for?” How we say what we say is just as important as what we say – and maybe even more important! Before you ask a question, think about what you are trying to accomplish or learn in the course of the conversation and consider if your question will produce the desired response. You just might find yourself engaging in a more profitable conversation.

About the blogger:
John E. Trombley, organization development consultant and training with The Village Business Institute has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and a Master of Management degree from the University of Mary, Fargo. Prior to founding his own organization development company, John served as a Command Pilot, Squadron Commander, and senior staff officer in the USAF and Air National Guard—he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel with over 6,200 flying hours.

With over 16 years of experience in providing consulting services and training programs, Trombley has a passion for group process facilitation and corporate training in areas including leadership development, change management, leadership transition processes, managerial coaching, and personality assessment workshops. He is registered with the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota as a Qualified Neutral mediator, is trained in Critical Incident Stress Management Group Crisis Intervention, and is certified in Internal Investigations by the Council on Education in Management.

For more information, contact The Village Business Institute at 1-800-627-8220 or