Often we find ourselves using the "Why" question in our conversations, personal or professional. More often than not, this why question then leads to escalating tension in the conversation.
The assignment did not complete on time. Why? I forgot your birthday. Why?
Here is what one must understand about the "Why" question and what one can do about it.
The "Why" question has three possible interpretations for a person who has been asked this question, and they could choose any of these interpretations depending on their frame of mind
1) Causality - the person who has been asked this question can assume that they have been asked to respond by providing causal factors.
2) Accusatory - the person who has been asked this question can assume that they have been accused of something that they believe they have not done willingly and consciously
3) Why Not - the person who has been asked this question can assume the Why as a challenge to their authority and respond by a "Why Not?"
What affects the choice of the above 3 possible interpretations?
a) The tonality in which the question has been asked. A sharp tonal inflection is likely to evoke a sharp response.
b) The general frame of disposition of the person who has been asked.
- If the person is generally very self assured and assertive, and the tonality of the question was balanced, then the person will usually respond with causal factors.
- If the person has self esteem issues or in that moment has some sense of self guilt (due to any reason), they could likely assume they are being blamed/accused. This might happen even if the tonality of the question was balanced.
- If the person has a sense of authority especially over the person asking the question, then it could likely evoke the "Why Not" response regardless of the tonality in which the question was posed.
So how can one proceed in the conversation? One of the ways is to ask different questions. You first ask yourself what do you want as an outcome, and then ask which question will steer you in the direction of the outcome.
Let's take the above two statements as an example
1) The assignment did not complete on time.
One possible desired outcome could be to determine how the task can be completed now with the least delay.
Hence the question to ask can be:
- How can we now ensure that we complete this task with the utmost urgency so that we can minimize any negative impact?
Another possible desired outcome could be - to assess the damage and control the same. Hence the question could be
- What does this delay mean in terms of impact and how can we minimize the impact?
2) I forgot your birthday. Why?
This is one of those personal situations where one feels sad/upset that someone important has forgotten your birthday (and even more so if it is a repeating situation).
One desired outcome could be for you to want that person to remember your birthday. Hence the question to ask could be
- What can be done to ensure that you remember my birthday easily?
The above two examples are just a representative of how questions asked with specific directionality can ensure prompt and precise resolution of the situation with no escalation.