Ask “what,” not “why”.

“I wanted to ask, ‘Why did you let this happen?’ but that was blasphemy. You never ask why. It was not a question for you to ask.” ~ Nnedi Okorafor, Binti

As I have worked to grow my own leadership, one superpower is self-awareness.

If I can see myself the way others see me and become more aware of the motivations, desires, and fears that drive my decisions, I’ve increased my creativity and brainpower available to focus on creating positive and productive outcomes. I still have giant blind spots, but every bit of forward progress in awareness has produced significant improvement in outcomes!

The road to self-awareness is reflection. I have to stop doing long enough to see what’s going on inside of me and how the way I’m being is impacting others.

But because I am biased toward doing, self-reflection feels unproductive; it feels like I’m spinning my wheels.

The quality of your questions determines the quality of your thinking.

When I stop to reflect on an interaction, especially one that didn’t go the way I wanted it to, the easy question to ask is, “Why.”

  • Why didn’t that person accept my proposal?
  • Why did that conversation end in an argument instead of understanding?
  • Why do I feel like I made no progress on that call?

The problem with “why” questions is that I don’t have much information to answer them! I only have the thoughts behind my side of the conversation, so I start inventing the thoughts behind the other side. I make assumptions about who the other person is, how they respond to me, or what they think of me. So when I ask “why,” I will likely ruminate about my fears, insecurities, and doubts; this does not lead me to better, more creative thinking!

Ask “what” instead.

I’m trying to abandon “why” questions and ask “what” questions instead.

  • What would I do differently to increase the chances that my proposal would be accepted?
  • What are some ways to increase understanding? What could I do when I see things veering toward an argument that might steer it back toward understanding?
  • What would progress feel like? What could I do that would make that outcome more likely?

Where “why” questions lead me to a creative black hole, I find that “what” or “how” questions help me to move my thinking forward. They engage my creativity about the situation instead of engaging my creativity to amplify my fears and insecurities.

There’s even some recent research that supports this idea. A team of researchers interviewed over 5,000 leaders and found that for those who were highly self-aware, the word “why” appeared 150 times, while the word “what” appeared over 1,000 times!

What would improve in your leadership if you quit asking “why”?

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