Language skills: Don’t ask ‘why’.

Why and question marks

Learning language skills can be so powerful. I can’t over-emphasise the importance of using the right word in the right situation. Asking the right questions, giving feedback, maintaining rapport – these are all incredibly valuable skills that will just make day-to-day interactions smoother, more amicable and more effective.

There is so much to learn and so many things to think about that nobody is ever going to be a perfect communicator. I am still learning new language skills myself, and just knowing them isn’t enough. You have to develop the habits to use them.

Take the question ‘why’, for example…

Why is ‘why’ so important?

Knowledge is power. Understanding others is the first step to improving relationships and communicating more effectively. So the question ‘why’ seems like an important one to ask. You’re sitting having a coffee with a friend in a local cafe. It’s someone you’ve known for some time and you get on well. Half-way through the conversation she slams her coffee cup on the table, spilling it everywhere, gets up and walks out of the cafe, muttering under her breath.

Why did she do that?

You’re at the end of your shift on a long day at work. The colleague who is due to relieve you is late and you have little choice but to keep working until they appear. They walk through the door ten minutes late.

Why were they late?


It’s a reasonable question, but here’s the thing: the word ‘why’ can be very emotional. When someone asks you why you did something, or why you didn’t, it can feel like you’re being judged. It can feel like there the question is loaded with an accusation. Not always, but there’s always a risk.

So if you feel the need to ask ‘why’. Try a different question:

  • What made you do it?
  • How did you come to do that?
  • What stopped you?
  • What happened?

These are less confrontational questions, and they also cause people to do a more rational inner search for the answer. ‘Why did you do that?’ brings up defensive answers and blame. ‘What made you do it?’ is more likely to bring a response, such as ‘I was having a bad day’ or ‘it reminded of a past situation that upset me’.

‘Why were you late?’ will trigger excuses, or blaming external factors such as traffic. ‘What made you late?’ may bring up more analytical answers with solutions ‘I didn’t leave early enough’, or ‘I might have to find an alternative route in future’.

There are times when ‘why’ is still the best word. Because ‘why’ triggers reasons and excuses, it can be a good way to explore a person’s personal rules or beliefs, but it’s good to get rapport first. Of course, you may also be trying to create confrontation on purpose too, in which case go for it.

There are very few words that are never okay, it’s about choosing the best for the situation and the person.

Robert Sanders is a therapist and life coach, supporting people in their present and helping them create their future.