I’ve noticed many trainees in RCI’s Relationship Coach Training programs using “Why” questions ineffectively, so let’s address that.
Spoiler Alert: “Why” questions are rarely needed and are usually ineffective.
For example, “Why is that important to you?” seems like a benign question, but it risks insulting your client if they interpret it as questioning the value of what’s important to them, and annoying them if they think they need to defend, justify or explain something they feel strongly about.
If it seems necessary to identify or highlight the reasons something is important to your client, simply ask “What about that is important to you?” and you’ll avoid a defensive reaction in most cases.
“Why did you do that?” risks defensiveness
“What were your reasons for doing that” is better.
“Why do you feel that way?” is simply awful, here’s why.
“What’s your reaction to that?” is more neutral and effective.
Here’s a few more “Why” questions that have come up in our trainings:
Why didn’t you follow through this week?
Why do you say that?
Why do you think he/she said/did that?
Why didn’t that work?
See the pattern? In each of the above examples, asking a “What” question seems to be more effective than a “Why” question, and most “Why” questions will be answered with a story or explanation that stops forward movement in the coaching session. Most “Why” questions seem to be insight-oriented in a way that isn’t practical and doesn’t directly add value to the client.
So, Why Ask Why?
Let’s address the role and purpose of asking “Why” questions in coaching.
First we need to be on the same page about coaching and how to coach. More about that here.
Here’s a definition: Professional Coaching is a positive, goal and results-oriented profession that helps you achieve your biggest dreams.
Notice the keywords in the above definition:
- Positive: We assume our clients are fully able to achieve their goals, that success is always possible, there is always a way forward and always a strategy that will work.
- Goal oriented: All attention and energy is on moving forward to successfully achieve goals.
- Results oriented: What matters is what works for moving forward, not opinion, theory, emotions (“feelings”) or beliefs.
Notice the emphasis on “moving forward” in each of the above. The biggest priority in coaching is to move your client forward at all times in every way possible. There are many things that can prevent or distract from moving forward that we will address if needed, but our first response will always be to forge ahead and try not to let anything prevent forward movement.
“Why” Questions and the Four Primary Steps of Coaching
To clarify the role of “Why” questions in coaching, let’s review the four primary steps of coaching:
Step 1: Visioning: “What do you want?” The big picture, long term Vision of the client’s desired future.
Step 2: Goal Planning: “What needs to happen to get what you want?” Identifying the steps needed to accomplish the big picture Vision.
Step 3: Action Planning: “How can you get what you want?” Strategizing how to accomplish each goal.
Step 4: Implementation: “What will you do today and this week to get what you want?” Implementation and follow up to execute the actions and accomplish the goals.
This is coaching in a nutshell. And notice that “What” and “How” questions are the focus, not “Why.”
Are “Why” Questions Necessary?
If we assume our client is fully functional and able to achieve their goals, our priority is to implement the above steps and use every moment in coaching to move forward towards success in goal achievement.
This means we would avoid anything that interferes with moving forward.
A “Why” question stops forward movement and causes the client to go into their head to come up with their reasons why. In most cases it is unnecessary to do so because-
A) We assume they have their reasons
B) We assume their reasons are valid
C) We assume that anything that isn’t a “fact” is a subjective “story” that we make up in our head
D) We assume that language is imperfect, imprecise, and that any explanation will not be the whole answer
E) We assume that humans are complex and have multiple, conflicting and changeable thoughts, feelings and priorities
F) We assume that inner conflicts, limiting beliefs, fear, and most internal problems and obstacles do not need to prevent our client from moving forward and successfully achieving their goal. More on that here.
Of course, sometimes the situation with our client doesn’t line up with all the above assumptions and it becomes important to explore and address reasons and obstacles, but we should do so when necessary, not as a routine, and as mentioned above “What” questions seem to be more effective than “Why.”
The most common situation that that can benefit from focusing on increasing awareness, insight or understanding is when the client needs to do so to overcome an obstacle, but not as a first resort, and only when necessary. Sometimes, but not all the time, you need to understand the reason for something to be able to do it. Sometimes you need to identify the “frame” that isn’t working to be able to “re-frame.”
Example: A single client fears online dating because they believe people lie about themselves online and some are predators, stalkers and married people wanting to cheat. While their fear might be overwhelming and real to them, the reasons for their fear need to be examined and evaluated and an informed decision made before dismissing one of the most effective tools available in today’s world for meeting potential partners. This “frame” is crying out for a “re-frame!”
Even then, “What” questions will be much more productive and effective than “Why” questions.
Is Awareness Necessary for Success?
There are many who use “Why” questions in coaching because they have an “Inside-Out” belief that insight, awareness, and understanding are necessary for growth and transformation. I agree that “Inside-Out” can be useful for personal growth, but disagree that it is “necessary” for goal achievement.
Inner shifts or transformation can certainly facilitate forward movement, but forward movement is NOT dependent upon or automatically results from inner shifts or transformation.
What’s “necessary” is action and forward movement, and transformation also occurs from the “Outside-In,” because “success breeds success” in that it builds self confidence and “success is therapeutic” in that many internal blocks diminish and even disappear by moving forward and consciously choosing to step into your desired future. You can spend a lot of time working on yourself and get nowhere, so I advocate trying coaching first, and therapy only if needed.
A pithy example of this is the saying to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” You can spend a lot of time and effort trying to overcome fear and become comfortable and confident before getting into action, or just get into action, which will overcome the fear and build self confidence.
But even for promoting insight, awareness and understanding, it seems to me that “What” questions are more effective than “Why” questions. For example, “What’s challenging about this?” rather than “Why is this challenging?” as well as the examples provided above.
When to Ask Why
In my opinion, the only time we need to be clear about “Why” is in defining our purpose, specifically our Life Purpose, which is part of Visioning. This is when we reach deep inside and attach language to our reason for being on this planet and the difference and legacy we want to create in this world. It’s a story, not a fact, but it’s our truth as measured by how much energy is behind it.
“Why do you want that?” is ONLY effective in coaching to identify our big picture purpose which drives just about everything we do, and is NOT a routine coaching question! To the contrary, outside of a big picture conversation about Purpose, “Why do you want that?” is not helpful and will most likely result in an annoyed and defensive client.
Even then, to me, “What’s your higher purpose for doing/choosing/wanting that?” would be more effective than asking “Why.”
So, why ask why? Hmm…