Do you put people on the defensive?

Why ‘why' can trip you up and what to say instead

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‘Why’. It’s such a small, yet powerful word to notice, understand and be aware of as you use it. Really? Why? Well, it does two things very quickly, immediately in fact; two things you want to avoid.

  1. it sends people straight to the word ‘because’ which is justifying their actions or decisions; and
  2. it closes down information-gathering in the request for ‘the reason’.

Let me explain:

Big Bird from Sesame Street tells us “questions are a great way of finding things out”. Questions are also crucial to us digging deeper, connecting with people and understanding what’s going on. As professional women, these three components are crucial to our visibility and ability to ask for (and expect to receive) what we want.

The trick about “why” is the effect that it has on us and, more importantly, the effect it has on those we ask the question.

When children are growing up, it’s seen as quite cute when they ask “why?” then you answer and then they ask “why?” again and again. As you answer them you’ll probably say “because” and “because” etc until eventually “because I say so!”.

Every day, we’re constantly asking questions (well I hope you are, based on Big Bird’s philosophy) to find out what’s happening, how things are progressing, how people are, where things are etc.

Notice the difference in this situation: imagine I was with you and asked you what you’re up to this weekend? You tell me “oh, I’m off shopping with friends and then on to the cinema” for example. Then I say “oh, why are you going to the cinema?”. You’ll say, “because XYZ film’s out and I want to see it”. It’s an innocent enough question with, in this case, no further agenda. And yet, you’ve justified to me “why” you’re going to the cinema. Because…. and then you’ve gone inside and thought about the reason you decided to go to the cinema.

If I ask you the same question and you tell me you’re off to the cinema with friends I say to you “aah, what are you going to see?” or, “who are you going with?”; these are much less on-the-spot questions. They seek information not justification. When we justify ourselves we’re on the defensive, we’re explaining the reasons rather than giving information, however innocent the scenario. It’s also quite irritating to have to explain why - and here’s why; it’s because we have to take a position and the question implies some judgment behind it.

Now here is the powerful bit: take this scenario to the workplace, or to a home life discussion about something that has some emotion attached to it, “why did you do that?”, “why haven’t you done that?” “why are you going there?” and you’re immediately putting the other person on the back foot, defending their decision or their position. That's the moment when you close the door on more information, often before you're ready.

‘Why’ is one of the many small words that make a big difference in our day-to-day conversations and directly affect the reactions and the responses we get. Try it out with someone as an experiment and get their feedback. They’ll tell you why they prefer one question to the other, because you’ve asked for a bit more information rather than put them on the back foot or “on guard”.

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Kay White

Savvy & Influential Communication for Ambitious Women in Business,