Be careful with Why? questions

Treat ‘Why?’ as an attack question!

We pay a lot of attention to words in NLP.

We think about:

  • What’s the thinking behind the words and comments
  • How they impact people
  • The intention behind them - why they are used.

For example, take that little word WHY? 

Harmless enough, isn't it?

After all, it's a little word of just 3 letters - w - h - y (plus the necessary ?) so why make a fuss about it?

We're surrounded by why?

We hear it, and we use it, all the time. And we respond to it all the time.

Just as the goldfish in the tank is so used to the water that she isn’t aware of it, we’re not aware of the multitude of why’s we encounter in daily life...

  • Why didn't you do that?
  • Why don’t you want to sign up for this product or offer?
  • Why were you late for work today?
  • Why are you looking at me like that?
  • Why don't you love me anymore?
  • Why can’t you just this once…?
  • Why do you always…?
  • Why do you never…?

Notice what's common...

In each, we are being required to account for our actions.

The questioner is demanding we

  • explain
  • justify
  • excuse
  • come up with an alibi for our thoughts or feelings or actions.

We're being put on the spot like a naughty child in the classroom.  And most of us respond automatically - without thinking about it.

So, the questioner has put himself in a superior position through the why question.  And, by obediently and meekly answering, we accept his authoritative stance – and we therefore adopt an inferior stance in relation to him.  We have lowered our status.

Be careful with WHY?

It’s a good idea to create a mental red alert for the word ‘why - it's a bit more than a good idea, in fact. That's why being alert to Why Questions is one of the things we explore on all our live NLP courses?

Treat it as an attack question whenever...

  1. you are asked a ‘why?’ question
  2. you are tempted to ask somebody else a ‘why?’ question.

Yes, it is true, not many people intend ‘why?’ as an attack question.

However it’s often experienced as challenging or intrusive. And there is always the emotional implication of one person demanding that the other accounts for, or explains, their actions,

Why this emotional response?

Because, when we were very young, adults used ‘why?’ as a way of controlling us and requiring us to justify our actions.

As a result, most of us have developed a deep-down uneasiness about being asked the question. And, conversely, we have developed a deep-down drive to answer a ‘why?’ question, and to do so immediately!

Why ‘why?’ is worth avoiding

(1) Asking other people:

If you use ‘why?’ a lot it is likely, over time, to evoke a degree of resistance or resentment towards you. People resent being put on the spot and made to explain themselves or justify themselves or account for their actions. Or to feel inferior.

(2) Being asked by others:

Do you automatically respond to ‘why?’ questions quickly and obediently?

Many of us do – it’s that conditioned response thing from childhood. And it’s a conditioned response (in NLP we call them Anchors) that is often used to manipulate us by salespeople, managers, spouses or life partners. They put us on the spot with a blunt ‘why?’ or ‘why not?’

Should we never use the word ‘why?’

It’s fine to use it – as long as do it with caution. And if it fits in with the context. That’s why I’ve deliberately used it a few times in this article.

And, if you really must use it to ask for reasons, be sure to use a soft and enquiring attitude/voice tonality.

Action points?

  1. First of all, notice how often you use it. (You may be surprised.) And then use it less.
  2. Find better ways of asking for information: who, what, when, where, how, I’m curious about…,
  3. Always pause briefly before responding to a ‘why?’ question. Then ask the person to clarify what exactly they would like to know. (This makes it less of an automatic response – and It gives you thinking time.)


The Pegasus NLP Newsletter

Most articles on this site originally appeared in The Pegasus NLP Newsletter - which has been published continuously since January 2001.

You can subscribe to our usually-monthly newsletter here

And there will be no spam - I promise.  You have trusted me with your email address and I will use it for the Newsletter and for nothing else - and it will never be shared with anyone else. Ever.  (Reg Connolly, founder of Pegasus NLP)