To Make Better Decisions, Ask Yourself ‘What,’ Not ‘Why’

Recently, I was talking with my good friend Dan. Having run his own business for many years, Dan was living the good life: making tons of money, living in a huge house, and working from home when he isn’t traveling to exotic destinations. Which is why I was stunned to hear him say, “I am so unhappy. I think I need to sell my company. But I don’t know what else I want to do.”

This situation presented an opportunity. At the time, I was working on my new book, Insight, about the science of self-awareness. And so with geeky glee, I asked Dan if I could practice my new self-awareness tool on him: one that I call Ask “What” Not “Why”. He agreed, and when first I inquired, “Why do you want to change what you’re doing?” Dan let out a huge, hopeless sigh and started rattling off all of his personal shortcomings: “I’m bored too easily. I’ve gotten cynical. I don’t know if I’m making any difference in the world.” The “why” question had the impact I’d predicted: not only did it fail to produce useful insight, but Dan became, if anything, more confused in trying to figure out why the spark had disappeared.

So I quickly changed course: “What do you dislike about what you’re doing?” He thought for a moment. “I dislike sitting in front of my computer and remotely leading a company—and don’t even get me started on the time zones. I just feel burnt out and disconnected.”

“OK, that’s helpful,” I replied, “What do you like?” Without hesitation, Dan replied, “Speaking. I really like speaking.” He told me that when he was in front of an audience, he could make an immediate impact. I knew the feeling, and could see the spark right away. This realization made Dan immediately more focused and clear-headed—he began to think about whether he could adapt his current role to spend more time sharing his message. I could have asked Dan why questions for hours and he’d likely have ended the conversation with no more insight, and probably in a much worse mood. But less than five minutes of what questions had drawn out a high-value discovery and a potential solution to his problem.

Dan’s experience is illustrative: Why questions draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.

Indeed, making the transition from why to what can be the difference between victimhood and growth. When Paul, a former neighborhood activist, moved back to the United States after a stint in Germany, he made the decision to purchase a small ceramics manufacturing company. But right out of the gate, the employees resisted the improvements he began to make, creating delays that hurt the company’s already bleeding balance sheet. He quickly learned that he’d been too optimistic with both his budgets and his cash reserves.

At this point, Paul was tempted to go down the dangerous road of why. Why wasn’t he able to turn things around? Why didn’t he do a better job with his financial projections? Why wouldn’t his employees listen to him? But he knew that these questions weren’t productive. So instead, he asked himself, what now? Paul explored three equally unattractive options: he could burn through his savings, he could take out a massive loan, or he could close the business. He chose to close the business. And here he asked what again. What do I need to do to close up shop? What can I do to realize the maximum value of the business?

Armed with these insights, Paul created a plan and began to execute it. Because he stayed clear-headed, he was even able to find creative ways to do good for others while winding things down; for example, donating much of his used equipment to schools and non-profits. Paul turned what could have been a life-shattering event into a chance to show what he was made of.

In addition to helping us gain insight to our problems, the What Not Why tool can also be used to help us better understand and manage our emotions. Seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza observed that “an emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof. [The emotion] becomes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it.” Let’s say you’re in a terrible mood after work. Asking Why do I feel this way? is likely to elicit such unhelpful answers as because I hate Mondays! or because I’m just a negative person! What if you instead asked what am I feeling right now? Perhaps you’d realize that you’re overwhelmed at work, exhausted, and hungry. Rather than blindly reacting to these feelings, you take a step back, decide to fix yourself dinner, call a friend for some advice about how to manage your work stress, and commit to an early bedtime.

Asking what instead of why forces us to name our emotions, a process that a strong body of research has shown to be effective. The simple act of translating our emotions into language—versus simply experiencing them—can stop our brains from activating our amygdala, the fight-or-flight command center, and this in turn helps us stay in control. If this sounds too simple to be true, try naming your feelings for a week and see what you notice.

There is just one important exception to the What Not Why rule: when navigating business challenges or solving problems in your team or your organization, asking why is critical. For example, if a member of your team drops the ball on an important project, not exploring why it happened means you risk recurrences of the problem. A good rule of thumb, then, is that why questions are generally better to help us understand events in our environment but what questions are generally better to help us understand ourselves.

Reprinted (or Adapted) from INSIGHT: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life © 2017 by Tasha Eurich. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

To Make Better Decisions, Ask Yourself ‘What,’ Not ‘Why’