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  • Wendy Lynch and Clydette de Groot

Why, not.


Word choices matter, even simple ones. I was reminded of this recently as I listened to a discussion among colleagues. It was after a less-than-satisfactory meeting. The director, Derrick, asked his employee, John: Why?

Specifically, he asked, why did you present the results that way?

As I expected, once the word why came out of his boss’ mouth, John stuttered, got a little defensive and began justifying his choices. It didn’t go particularly well because, whether Derrick intended to or not, a question starting with the word “why” sounded like an accusation. “Why” puts the brain into an automatic, protective response.

Turns out, the why-response is a natural one. We tested the why-response in our Breakfast Study, where students asked people about their breakfast choices using a variety of different prompts and questions. Those who were asked “why did you have that for breakfast?” responded very quickly, most often (7 times out of 10) starting with the word “because….” For example, “because that’s what I always have.” More of a reflex than a thoughtful response.

The interaction between Derrick and John was a good reminder to pay attention to:

Intention: Am I intending to blame another person for something that just happened? And if so, is this helpful? (Probably not). Or, am I intending to learn and understand more about how John decided to do the presentation the way he did?

Word choice: Instead of “why,” what would happen if Derrick asked, “How did you and your team decide what to present today”? John likely would have paused and explored his thinking behind the presentation.

In the Breakfast Study, people who were asked “how did you decide to have that for breakfast?” took more time to think (pausing with an “ummm”), and tended not to start with “because.”

Frame. To lessen the sense that a question is intended to find fault, we can frame a question in ways that

- show appreciation of the situation:

“John, given that we all wish that that meeting had gone better…”

- lessen the threat:

“.. and, there are likely many things we would collectively do differently…”

- give them room to think:

“… I’m wondering, how you and your team decided what content to present.”

Focus on the future. Or even better, since there is nothing we can do to change the past.

“I’m wondering if we have a chance like this in the future, what ideas do you have about what to present next time?”

Every conversation is a journey. Our choices about how to listen and what to say matter.

You’ll find more tips and tools in Get to What Matters.


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