Amongst the family of powerful questions the Why questions have their special spot. They are both extremely powerful, used correctly, and extremely dangerous. In this episode of the Coaching Random Thoughts, Alex Kudinov explores the ups and downs of using the why questions in your coaching and everyday conversations.
Someone asked me a question the other day on the LinkedIn and my first knee jerk reaction was not particularly cool and nice. Good thing I stayed away from the “reply” button at that point.
As I stepped away from the first reaction, took a deep breath and recognized, and analyzed this reaction, it became clear to me that the reaction was not to the content of the question, but to the way it was asked. It started with Why.
Yes, I know, I know the whole mantra where we start with Why. What I also observed that that whole movement does not focus on the Why question, but on the reasons we are doing things – kind of a parallel to the outcome vs solutions conversation.
So what I want to talk about today is the power and dangers that come with that power of the Why questions.
Whys are extremely important for our understanding of anything and everything. We use them extensively in brainstorming, as in 5 why techniques and they work perfectly. However, notice that there, they are primarily turned towards the problems, actions, events, not people and their behaviors.
In coaching we try to avoid coaching the problem and doing our best to dig under the layers and layers and look at the whole, naturally creative, resourceful, and whole person. That’s where the why questions are quite dangerous. And they can be quite magnificent at the same time!
Coaching is about creating new awareness, why questions are rarely about that. Why is about analysis, rationalization, and justification. When you ask those why questions in the coaching conversation they can be an extremely powerful pivot from building awareness to rationalization of a specific aspect of that conversation. And there might just as well be a good and well thought out coaching reason for that.
It reminds me of the 3 things that makes us learn better – testing, spacing, and interleaving. The latter is all about the diversity of activities as we are learning. So switching from awareness building to rationalization to back to awareness building might be a good way to enhance client’s learnings. With that said, coaches need to be highly aware of the potential side effects of the why questions.
First and foremost a potential defensive reaction. Asking a why question we subtly ask the client to rationalize and justify their behaviors and actions. Those, who are quick and good with making lots of assumptions can get to defensiveness before you even finish asking the why question. So it’s important for coaches to work overtime to ensure that the client is open to any form of feedback, especially pointed and very direct.
Second potential downside to asking the why questions is the fact that I mentioned before – they have no way of enhancing awareness. Rationalization and analysis do not go together, it’s the either/or relationship. At the same time rationalization is rarely forward looking. It rarely serves the purpose of propelling the client forward, while they are mired in defending their past actions, rationalizing and explaining them. That goes against the core premise of the coaching.
It’s also the tone of the question, your intonation, your stressing specific words, your pace of speech. As always, a coach wants to stay absolutely 100% curious about client’s ways of thinking, their world, and actions. Asking the why questions with genuine curiosity and care for the client goes a long way to prevent the potential defensiveness and pushback, to allow client the space to consider the depth of the question and decide which way they want to go with it.
You, as a coach, gotta have a lot of rapport with the client to ask why questions. You gotta be willing to sacrifice some of that rapport on the instinctive push-back reactions. You gotta be willing and able to rebuild that rapport quickly and hope that the question and answer to it were worth the sacrifice.
If you are a novice coach, my recommendation for you would be to stay away from the why questions, period. Just don’t do it. There’s more downside in it for you. As you get more comfortable in your skin and with a variety of fledging and growing competencies, you might start playing with the why questions more deliberately .
Good luck on your fascinating coaching journey.