DON’T Start with “Why?”

If you’ve been on the planet in the last decade, you’ve no doubt been exposed to Simon Sinek’s video and book, Start with Why. Simon makes a tremendous case for the power of asking ourselves “What’s my ‘why’?” in an effort to communicate with clients, patients, and team members the emotional reason behind what we do rather than the more logical steps to do it.

I agree with Simon. If you’re embarking on any kind of self-reflection exercise or diving into your purpose or values in preparation for addressing your team, “Why?” is a great place to start and a very useful tool. But, if you are trying to communicate better in everyday situations with your team, clients, or family members… “Why?” can be a massive deal-breaker.

“Why are you late?” “Why didn’t you clean those instruments?” “Why haven’t you found a new job yet?” “Why do you always have to bring that up?”

Questions that begin with “Why?” automatically initiate the “blaming/shaming” paradigm as well as the defensive “because” response. The “Why?” question is the precursor to arguments. If you’d like a different result, consider these two approaches instead:

1. State the facts and ask a different question.

“How,” “Was,” “Is,” and “What” are much better choices. Also, avoid starting these statements with “You” if possible.

“It’s 20-minutes later than we agreed to meet. Is everything alright?” or “What can we do to make sure you’re on time for our next meeting?”

“It’s been a few months since you left your last job. How is your search for a new one coming? Anything I can help with?”

“The instruments for the last procedure yesterday weren’t cleaned. Was there a reason you weren’t able to get to them?”

“That issue has been brought up several times before. How can we get it resolved once and for all?”

2. Train others to ask you a different question.

If the situation is reversed and you are on the receiving end of a “Why?” question, ask for clarification using a differently stated question.

“I’m not sure I really understand what you’re asking. Could you give more details or explain this question further?”

“I’m feeling a little defensive, and I want to understand and respond appropriately. Could you ask it differently using a “What” or “How” question?”

“Why?” is a fabulous and important question if you are doing personal exploratory work, drilling down on your professional vision or purpose, or trying to uncover underlying causes to challenges. But, if you want to communicate powerfully with others and get more of the results you really want, eliminate the word “Why?” and choose the much more powerful “What?” or “How?”


“It is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear.”
~~Italo Calvino