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Why Ask 'Why?'

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If you grew up in a household like mine and asked the simple question—why?—you were met with one of two answers: “Go look it up,” and, “Because I told you so!” 

Your reaction to these phrases probably yielded different results.  If you went and looked up the answer in that big cabinet of glossy covered books (called encyclopedias for younger readers), you probably ended up with a strong ability to research and get answers in life. Some stopped asking questions and accepted reality to avoid conflict or extra work. Some may have ended up responding hastily and soon understood what came after the phrase, “one of these days Alice” (I’ll give the younger generation a chance to Google that).

As children, we were curious and rightfully so. We did not understand the world and looked to our elders for guidance in this new world. Our elders could either give us their version of what is going on (if they even knew themselves) or send us on a journey to discover our version of the answer.

Keep the Curiosity

“Why” is a wonderful word! It allows us to enter into communications that provide positive friction, which allows all of us to grow. Unfortunately, many do not take the time to stand up and ask that simple three-letter question. It could be that some are scared to stand out in the crowd, perhaps they may feel inferior for not understanding. Maybe their previous attempts were met with a negative response, like “Because I said so.”

In a recent conversation with my son regarding current events, we were at a standstill in our dialogue, as he was reciting facts off what seemed to be right off the screen of many popular social media feeds. It frustrated him that the word “why” was used so often as my main verbal exchange. Why was this written? Why did they state it like that? Why did you believe that source instead of other sources? The frustration came on his part when the answers could not be expressed well.  

When walking into a shop and I see something new or out of line, I will start the same line of questioning. Why did you do that? Why would you not do it the other way? Why did you choose that path over the original path you were told to stay on? 

More often than not, I received an answer like, “That is how I have always done it.” This response is usually met with an explanation of the policy and procedures set forth by the current (or previous) leadership.  Occasionally, I received a great gift and I got to hear an explanation of why that action was taken.

The Value of ‘Why’

It is only when someone has the courage to speak up and explain their reason of reasoning do people learn. My question is not to catch someone doing something wrong so I can bust them, but it is a legitimate gateway to communications. It’s no more than the exchange of thoughts and ideas between two or more people. This means all parties must be willing to give and receive information openly in order to truly understand the situation.

Here is the thing for all you puffy chest leaders: You are the expert of things that happened and the path of where you want things to go. Most of the time, you are so busy leading from the past to the future that you are not participating in the area your team members are—the present. It is in the present that you can quickly call out inefficiencies in your plan due to real-world events.  

So why ask “why?” We ask this to learn about the actions of others. We ask this to learn about our own actions. We should ask this to understand where we can grow just as much as we ask this to understand what our teammates, friends and family need to learn. This is vital to ours and others development and eventual success in business and in life.  

On the contrary, if we ask this to demoralize, correct and discipline, we are only enforcing the same behaviors of your predecessors who shut us down using their ranks and power instead of building us with their words and wit. The courage to hear someone's response to “why” is equally as important as the courage of someone to stand up and ask.

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