The simplest tool for empathetic leadership: Don’t ask why.

Published by Peter on

One of the most innocently combative questions in the English language is why. Don’t ask why.

Sure, why is the go-to word when you want to know the reason for something, and of course we need to know the reasons for things in order to learn, fix, grow, and improve.

A lot of life involves learning the reasons for things. But why is the wrong way to get there.

Why did this happen? Why did you do it that way? Why did they say that? Why isn’t this on schedule? Why are you so happy?

The word why has become a blaming word. Like a torch, it can provide light in a dark place, or it can be wielded as a flaming cudgel.

Usually, it’s both.

Scary lady generated by Adobe Express generative AI

We’re taught from a very early age to be put on the defensive when the word why comes out. It’s often parental code for “omg how did I raise such an idiot.”

Why did you pull your sister’s hair? Why did you eat the whole bag of chips? Why did you leave your homework until bedtime?

As children, we learn to armor up whenever the word why comes out. We learn that the word why means we are very likely under attack. We are being told we did something wrong, and we’re being asked a question for which we have no good answer. It’s a trap.

If you don’t want excuses, don’t ask why

I will never forget an innocent question one of my clients asked about a year ago.

“What’s the difference between reasons and excuses? My boss asked me why the project wasn’t on schedule. When I started to explain, he interrupted and said he didn’t want to hear any excuses.”

I needed a moment to compose myself. His boss had laid the why trap and then sprung it.

I explained that weak leaders often ask why when what they mean is “I’m displeased.”

His boss didn’t want excuses, and he didn’t want reasons. He just wanted to say he was mad. So he did it in a roundabout, confusing, passive-aggressive way. The result? A confused employee who didn’t know why he was being punished for trying to answer the question he was asked.

If you want to teach a lesson, don’t ask why

“Why did you do it that way?” is a terrible way to correct someone, especially if you’re more senior, more expert, or hold more power.

If what you mean is “I can show you a better way,” then say that.

Many years ago I was having trouble writing a bit of software using a new module. I asked a more experienced programmer to check my work. He looked at my code and asked, “Why did you do it that way?”

It was clear he knew what I’d done wasn’t going to work. So the only possible answer to his question was, “Because I don’t understand it.”

Confused businessman also created by Adobe Express.

Instead of putting me in a frame of mind to learn and be grateful for his help, he created resent and self-doubt. He added unnecessary judgment and negativity. He highlighted his superior knowledge.

The implied (but unsaid) finish to his question was “only an imbecile would try to do it that way.”

Did he derail my career or send me into a spiral of self-doubt and depression? Of course not. What he did was erode trust and create distance between him and his coworker.

Add up enough of those judgmental moments, and people stop wanting to work with guys like him. The learning isn’t worth the negativity and judgment.

Even if you really want to know why, don’t ask why

Some of you are rolling your eyes and saying, “Oh come on Peter, stop being so sensitive. This is just how people talk. We don’t mean anything by it.”

Here’s your opportunity to better understand empathetic leadership, then.

When you’re communicating with others, especially in a workplace, it doesn’t matter how generous or inclusive your intentions are if your communication style is off-putting. Very rarely do your intentions as a leader matter. People will respond to your actions, not your intentions.

It’s not your fault that the word why puts people on the defensive. We armor up because why so often leads to a trap question or is wielded as a passive-aggressive weapon. It’s an accusatory word.

So, don’t ask why.

What can you do instead?

If you have something to say, then say it.

If you’re upset that the project is late, then say I’m upset the project is late. If you know a better way to do something, say I know a better way to do that. If your kid did a stupid, dangerous thing that ended in stitches in the ER, then say don’t carry a watermelon while riding your bike.

Also generated by Adobe. But yeah, there’s a story behind this one. 🙄

If you really want to know why—if you really need the reasons for something—then reframe your question.

Start it with what or how. What made this happen? How did this get behind schedule? What got in the way? What is making you so happy?

There are two benefits to reframing your why question.

First, it eliminates the implied blame that comes with why. People don’t feel they’re personally at the hot end of the torch when they hear what or how at the start of a question. These words signal that the coming interaction is going to be about facts, not interpretations.

Second, it forces you to be clear in your own thoughts. People who are frustrated, surprised, or hurt often lash out with why. It’s a reflex reaction.

Reframing that why question into a how or what forces you to get very clear about what you are asking. It makes you think about whether your why is just a reflex. It makes you think about the things you actually need to know.

It also lets you think about the other person’s role in the situation. My client was asked why the project was late. When he tried to answer (he was waiting for other teams to deliver their parts), he got shut down. The boss didn’t actually want answers. He wanted the project to be on time. Yet my client couldn’t do anything about that. The result? The boss didn’t get what he wanted, but he made his employee feel attacked and unheard.

Do you think that’s what he really wanted to achieve? What if instead he’d thought about his employee’s role in the situation? He might have asked, “How can you get the project back on track?” He might have been able to help. Instead, he added unnecessary friction, distance, and mistrust.

Are you teaching someone? Blaming them? Seeking answers from them? Using them as a proxy for something else?

Get clear on what you’re asking, and get clear on whom you’re asking it of.

It’s your responsibility to build trust

Moving away from why is a simple, subtle, yet surprisingly powerful tool for building trust. People won’t even realize you’re doing it. They’ll just feel like they can trust you.

Trust is a hard thing to build and an easy thing to break. It’s like a house of cards.

Healthy cultures built on empathy are fostered through subtlety and consistency. You don’t need everyone to share what’s going on in their personal lives at the beginning of every staff meeting. You don’t need to do team-building volunteer outings every month.

You need an environment where people feel safe to speak up, to ask for help, to show up without their armor on. You need to make the connecting bonds strong that are holding together your house of cards.

That’s empathetic leadership, and it takes constant attention to subtleties like dropping why from your vocabulary.

People won’t ever realize you’ve done it. They’ll just feel like they can trust you.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills, their workplace culture, and the effectiveness of their teams. Also, I help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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