On my journey home the other day, I overheard a conversation between a mother and small child.
‘Can we go to the park tomorrow, Mummy?’
‘Not tomorrow, maybe at the weekend.’
‘Why not tomorrow, Mummy?’
‘Because you’re going to Granny’s tomorrow.’
‘But why can’t Granny take me to the park, Mummy?’
‘Because Granny doesn’t live near the park.’
‘Why doesn’t Granny live near the park, Mummy?’
‘Because she lives where she likes to live.’
‘But why does she like living there, Mummy?’
‘Because she likes her house and it’s near her friends.’
‘But why, Mummy?’
‘Just why, Mummy, why.’
‘Because Y’s a crooked letter and neither you nor I can straighten it’.
The little boy was baffled but silenced which could well have been the result the harried-looking mum was looking for. The tension in her voice had increased as did the whining in her son’s voice. Actually, maybe it would be better described as ‘why-ning’!
Overhearing that conversation set me thinking about ‘why’. ‘Why’ is a little word which often seems to cause conflict, provoking a defensive response. Somehow, and to some extent, ‘why’ can make us feel under threat and therefore feel the need to defend our position.
‘Why didn’t you get that assignment back to me on time?’
‘Why are you late for this meeting? You’re always late for our updates.’
‘You said you were going to sort out the garage: why haven’t you done it?’
The very tone of ‘why’ in these examples seems accusatory and focuses on the problem rather than its solution. ‘Why’ runs the risk of sending the other person into a self-justifying, destructive mood. We can’t change the past but we can seek to constructively work out a way the issue doesn’t arise again.
What if we asked those questions in a more solution-focused way?
Is there anything else I could have done to have helped you get that assignment back on time?
If you really mean this, it’s difficult for the person you’re asking to take offence.
Do I need to schedule these update meetings for a different time of day? Are they clashing with another meeting you have?
Maybe you do – in which case, you’re being clear that you’re taking responsibility for doing so. If not, then he/she will take responsibility for being late without feeling like you’re having a go.
‘What needs to happen for you to be able to sort out the garage?’
This gives the person the chance to think about the obstacles (perceived or real) that are in the way and come up with the solution, what’s motivating the decision to sort it out in the first place, and what needs to be done to make it happen. Maybe there’s a good reason it hasn’t happened that you’re not aware of: maybe it’s not a priority for the other person. Either way, you’ve aired the issue in a way that encourages discussion rather than provoking a row.
Like any other coaching tool, you can misuse this. It’s not just about the words, it’s about the intention. If your intention is to avoid conflict and promote a change in the situation, try using a more solutions-focused question and see what happens.
Today’s pebble for you: Are you a ‘why-ner’?
Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.
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