Making ‘WHAT’ the new ‘WHY’…


By Hannah Young

Picture the scene…you’ve been snowed-under with study, and it’s exam time. You’re losing sleep and feeling anxious. You’ve just finished your first exam, and you don’t think it went very well. You climb onto the bus at the end of the day and stare out of the window, replaying every single word you wrote in response to that critical analysis question. It’s hot, you’re tired, and you arrive home. Your mum is there to welcome you.

“Mum, that didn’t go so well,” you say, in a monotone murmur.

“Why?” asks your mum.

WHY? How do you answer that question? Why didn’t it go so well? Is there an answer? Where do you start? In your stressed-out state, this question can only prompt an impatient, “I don’t know why!” answer. Familiar?

When we’re trying to get to the bottom of analysing an event or working out what someone is feeling, we’ve been groomed to ask the typical ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, where’, and ‘why’ questions. Those 5 ‘W’s of questioning. But does ‘why’ really belong there? ‘Why’, unlike the other 4 ‘W’s doesn’t have a concrete answer. Let’s imagine we’re investigating a crime. We can identify who was involved, what happened, and when and where it happened. But asking ‘why’ it happened isn’t as straightforward. The answer is abstract, subjective, and might change depending on who you’re asking. The criminal’s answer to ‘why’ might be hugely different to the investigating officer’s answer. Finding out ‘why’ is definitely going to take a lot longer and will require far deeper analysis.

As kids, we instinctively asked a lot of ‘why’ questions. Why can’t I eat that chocolate bar? Why should I put my coat on? Why is my older brother allowed to stay up late? Why do I have to go to school? Asking ‘why’ was an efficient way to get the adults around us to explain themselves. But what we were actually saying was ‘can you explain that to me?’ or ‘how come I have to do that?’ Now we’re no longer kids, our language is fully developed and we don’t have to resort to asking simple ‘why’ questions. After all, if there’s one thing we learnt from asking ‘why’ questions as kids, it’s that the answer is often, “Because I say so!

So what’s so important about all of this?

Let’s go back to the scenario I presented earlier. Put yourself in your mum’s shoes. She wants to get some information out of you. She can tell that you’re stressed and disappointed from your body language, and you’ve told her the exam didn’t go very well. What she really wants to know is what happened to make you feel like that. What was it about the exam and the way that you answered the questions that makes you think you didn’t perform well? She’s actually looking for you to open up about specific events and actions. So, to get her hands on information about events and actions, some ‘what’ questions are going to be useful. And, because she’s your mum, the next thing she wants you to open up about is your feelings. For this, let’s replace ‘why’ with ‘how’. So, instead of responding with a simple ‘why?’, mum now responds with, “What happened? How do you feel you performed? How are you feeling?” By now, you should be feeling more willing to open up.

When we look at ‘why’ from this angle, it now seems an illogical question to ask in this situation. “Why didn’t the test go so well?” Is there a simple answer to that? There could be a thousand reasons why. Why seems critical. Why assumes blame. Is it because you didn’t study hard enough? Is it because you weren’t concentrating? Any of us would be frustrated by this accusative question, and it becomes far too easy to snap back with a defensive, “ I don’t know why!” or “Just because!”

How can we eliminate ‘why’?

Ok, let’s put this into practice. Take a look at these alternatives to ‘why’ questions:

Why are you upset? How do you feel and what happened to make you feel like that?

Why didn’t you get the work done? What was it that stopped you from completing that task?

Why do you want to do that? How did you arrive at that decision?

Why don’t you want to do that? What is it about that option that makes you not want to do it?

Why aren’t I allowed to…? What could I do to make that possible?

Notice how these alternative phrases open up the opportunity for carefully thought-out answers. They’ll cause the person being questioned to engage their cognitive processes and really assess their thoughts and actions. Instead of feeling blamed or at fault, they’re given the chance to truly open up about their feelings and experiences in that situation.

Remember, you can also apply this to yourself. Instead of asking yourself ‘why’ questions like ‘why is Maths so hard for me?’, give yourself a break and ask ‘what is it about Maths that I struggle with, and how could I take action to start to understand it more?” Suddenly, one simple question becomes an action plan for self-reflection and improvement!

So, give it ago. Try eliminating ‘why’ from your dictionary.