Because Y’s a crooked letter

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?’

‘Why what?’

‘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’?

Any thoughts?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your work and life, why not email me to see how we can work together?


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10 Responses to Because Y’s a crooked letter

  1. Roger Martini says:

    What a great post! How often do I ask ‘why?’ with even a slight accusatory note? I realise I even ask myself ‘why?’ (‘why did you say that?’) with (usually more than) a hint of exasperation and annoyance. I suppose the annoyance comes from the failure of reality to meet my expectations. Perhaps I am too much of an optimist. WHY is that I wonder?

  2. Is it that we are our own harshest critics? Reminds me of this post:
    Next time (’cause you can bet there will be a next time) I ask myself ‘why am I such an idiot?’, maybe I should stop and ask myself if that’s the truth and how I can focus more on solving the issue rather than beating myself up about it.
    Thanks for commenting!

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  5. Leslie says:

    Why is an important question when it comes to matters mysterious, particularly in observable phenomena. However, in deeper matters of the soul, it is the least useful question, and often becomes a quagmire of backward glances that serves to obscure the deeper lessons to be learned. What, when, how? These are far more productive, and forward looking questions.

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  7. Pingback: Is ‘why’ a dangerous word or a useful tool? | Turning over pebbles

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