When I was kid, ‘why’ was my favorite word. Why is the sky blue? Why are dogs so friendly? Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk say asking questions is a fundamental creative skill. However, in everyday business environments, it turns out there’s one kind of question that can stifle creativity and create conflict. Just these three little letters can destroy trust and teambuilding, according to celebrated Washington, DC business coach and author Kristi Hedges.
Why, you ask?
“When you ask why,” she said to a group of investors at a leadership conference designed by Square One Bank this week, “you create the expectation of a full explanation. That can create defensiveness in the listener. Without intending to, you can be perceived as questioning their intelligence, their integrity, maybe even their status or their competence.”
To avoid triggering a defense response, Hedges suggests using your natural curiosity to ask for clarity–just don’t use the word why. “For example, ask things like: what kind of situation led you to that response? Or: how did you see things then?”
The basic move is to take your natural desire to understand, and turn it into something that does not put the person on the spot. The good news is what and how questions can lend you the same insights, while keeping the conversation moving and open.
Why questions trigger defensive reactions
Hedges pointed out that people respond to perceived threats to their status, their authority, and their certainty with predictably poor results in business situations. For example, to illustrate classic defensive behavior, she pulled up a memorable video of then-congressman Michael Grimes. He threatened a reporter after he asked a simple question about an ongoing financial fraud case:
Grimes, a former Marine who previously worked in intelligence, is a disciplined individual in regular life–yet he does a memorable job threatening the reporter’s life when triggered by a threatening question. The point is, anyone can be triggered into feeling as defensive and threatened as Grimes did in that moment. (They just might not express it so openly or on national TV.) Defensiveness happens when people feel put on the spot to explain and take responsibility. That’s great if you’re holding an inquisition, but bad when you’re trying to build trust and teamwork.
Next time you’re faced with a mentoring or fact-finding moment in business, try asking simple questions about ‘how’ they perceived the situation then and ‘what’ led them into the actions they took and ‘which process’ might work better next time. You’ll get the same information as you would by asking why, but with less defensiveness. That’ll feel great for you and for your team.