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January 2013: Three Decades of Questions: From How…to Why…to What

If you’re a leader who seeks to better understand your direct reports – or a parent wanting to connect with your children – learning how to ask a good question might be a worthy New Year’s resolution.

Asking a question might sound simple, but crafting a question that has the power to jumpstart better thinking in someone else – that’s another matter.

Like any exquisite talent, questioning can be under-utilized, over-relied-upon or recklessly abused. For example, through hundreds of conversations with Attica Prison inmates, I learned about the fine line between provocative questions that are appreciated and “grilling” questions that are resented.

Three kinds of questions

During my adult years, I’ve paid attention to three kinds of questions – “How?” “Why?” and “What?” questions.

Early in my career, consulting with ambitious young leaders, I wanted to discover how systems and processes worked, and how to achieve quick results for clients. I asked a lot of “How?” questions:

“How can I help you?”

“How do you manage your time?”

“How does that machine work?”

“How will you execute that project?”

Underneath my stream of “How?” questions lurked an intense desire to please. Gaining credibility and approval, I reasoned, would come from leading clients to what they wanted: solutions, answers, and formulas for leadership success that I dreamed up or read in books.

It worked. Sort of.

My “How?” questions brought attention to skills and techniques. Clients began gushing about their “new and improved leadership.” Though errant, that conclusion did not deter word of mouth referrals. My adrenaline feasted on dubious claims like, “Without you, we couldn’t have made it.” I had become an eager “How?” questioner devoted to bottom-line outcomes.

The limitations of “How?”

The delusion of my euphoria struck home when emotional challenges in my own life sneaked past my defenses. “How?” proved inadequate when individuals important to me began to die; when marriage proved tougher than courtship; when old friendships fell away. In those situations, I needed wisdom more than quick fixes.

During that same period, my “How?” questions to clients, favoring short-term thinking, had worn thin. My narrow focus on “how to” failed the endurance test.

That limitation triggered confusion. I spent more time reflecting. The “Why?” questions I found myself asking started showing up in my coaching:

“Why do you react more strongly to her than to your other staff members?”

“Of all the things you could be doing with your life, why this?”

“Why do you perceive your way as the best way?”

“Why not?”

I watched clients embrace “Why?” questions with surprising enthusiasm. Appreciative head-scratches became the common response. One owner confided, “I don’t have answers to all your questions. In fact, I cringe every time I see you coming – but our meetings are helping me.” Another said, “My whole life I’ve been a ‘human doing.’ Your questions are helping me become a human being.”

Despite the benefits, my “Why?” questions shared a glaring limitation: every query yielded merely opinion. In response to being asked, “Why?” people told me what they thought was going on, or what they felt was going on. My questions led clients to an enticing soup of possibilities, but little clarity. The best they could do was guess.

“What’s really going on here?”

But a business cannot be built on speculation and guesswork, no more than parental fictions about children can produce self-aware kids.

Having identified the limitations of quick fixes (through “How?” questions) and opinion-gathering (through “Why?” questions), I searched for a way to promote new knowledge aboutwhat’s really going on in any given system or situation.

With the help of masterful thinkers like Dr. Murray Bowen, I discovered a third option: employing “What?” questions to obtain facts and learn about beliefs:

“What is the most important thing you’ve learned about your family history?”

“What do you want to say to your boss about this problem?”

“What tells you that teamwork is breaking down?”

“What are you most afraid of as a leader?”

Hearing facts and beliefs from leaders about their businesses and families revealed how much I didn’t know. My questions became less focused on teaching the other a lesson than on discovering something new myself. I noticed that as I learned, my clients became clearer!

Through experimentation, I grew to value “How?” and “Why?” as well as “What?” questions. While all claim important territory, each can be called upon at exactly the wrong moment, detouring a conversation down a path of confusion or futility.

Under the stewardship of more discerning leaders, “How?” “Why?” and “What?” are selectedmore than blurted, and delivered elegantly or with bluster depending on the situation.

Those decisions about how and when to employ questions come from deliberate practice over time. In all interactions, the bottom-line goal of asking questions should never be forgotten:

“Helping the person being questioned to sharpen their clarity and awaken their courage.”

A question has more potential to promote that end if it emerges from the genuine curiosity of the one who’s asking. This is the trick: to construct a question I am really curious about or interested in, and trust that it will offer some value to the other.

This is a very different process than leading another to my conclusion.

6 Responses to “January 2013: Three Decades of Questions: From How…to Why…to What”

  1. December 31, 2012 at 9:17 pm, Rick said:

Through working with John, I learned that having good questions far exceeds any answers I might provide.

  1. December 31, 2012 at 10:05 pm, Van Smith said:

Hi John,

This is Van Smith , I was at your Leadership Workshop , The Mature and Inmature Leader.

  1. January 01, 2013 at 5:43 pm, W. T. Soeldner said:

How and why questions may be interesting to the consultant–and often more congenial to the client–but they also have the tendency to suck the consultant into the client’s field/system. My experience is that the questions that finally assist the client to address his/her issues/questions are the “what” questions.

  1. January 01, 2013 at 9:12 pm, Lorna Hecht-Zablow, MFT said:

This is an informative and clear description of the utility, or lack of utility, of the different types of questions. A good reminder for me as I continue to work on steering away from the automatic “why” questions with my clients.

  1. January 01, 2013 at 9:18 pm, John Rodriguez said:

I tried this approach this morning while interacting with one of my nephews. It was the longest and most meaningful exchange wev’e had during the holidays.

I typically start the conversation with, how is school going? After reading your post I tried a new approach, I asked, what are you most concerned about as you enter your next semester? We had a 20 minute discussion regarding his “concerns” around organic chemistry. He also returned to the conversation after twice being interrupted by relatives. And not once during this exchange did he go for his iPhone — remarkable!

I will enter the new year more mindful of my own curiosity and what it prompts in me as I consciously frame the use of how, why, and what questions?

Thanks John and Happy New Year,

John Rodriguez Profile on LinkedIn

  1. January 07, 2013 at 7:01 am, paul schmitz said:

How, Why, and What, ???? Those are the questions. Would like to know more.

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