Ask the Right Questions

Sometimes, asking “why?” can be a trap.

A typical individual coaching client comes to me wanting to do something (it could be anything – find a job, write a book, earn a promotion, get in shape) and looking for my help. Very likely by the time he comes to me, he has been thinking about it for a while. He probably feels stuck and unable to close the gap between what is and what he wants it to be. The temptation for some of these clients is to delve into explaining to me why  they have not done what they say they want. Reasons range from the practical (it’s hard, they don’t have time, they don’t know how) to the psychological (fear of failure, fear of success, anxiety, self-doubt). But as tempting as it is to wander with them down the path of “why-nalysis,” it often leads to a dead end. Most times, the narrative of why things are the way they are only serves to support the status quo. And when people come for coaching, the status quo is not what they’re after. So if you are feeling stuck and wondering why, here are some good reasons change your questions.

Asking why can serve to reinforce the stuck-ness. They story of why it’s hard for you to change is not likely to help you change. Instead, I suggest that clients look at their successful changes in the past and see how they surmounted the challenges they faced, as well as looking at what has not worked in the past in order to identify pitfalls to avoid. This inquiry helps clients identify their strengths and weaknesses and may offer a model for future change.

Dwelling on why is backward-looking rather than forward-thinking. The great hockey player Wayne Gretzky said “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” If you’re spending all your energy on figuring out why haven’t done something, you’ll never get around to taking the small steps and big leaps of change. Better to invest your energy in creating a vision of change and figuring out what actions will lead to that change.

Analyzing why can become a way to rationalize inaction or avoid taking responsibility. Yes, change can be hard, often because of circumstances beyond our control. But if change is possible, it can only happen if we feel empowered enough to make a difference, and blaming circumstances or others won’t get us there. Alternatively, getting stuck in  can lead to guilt, self-criticism, and judgment, which is also not a very resourceful perspective. Focus instead on identifying the things you can change — starting with your own behavior.

“Why” is not as concrete or useful “what” and “how.” What do I want? And how do I get there? What steps must I take? What is getting in my way? And how do I get around, over, or through these barriers? What are my options? “Why” can lead to a spiral into navel-gazing and analysis paralysis. “What” and “How” are action-oriented.

Don’t get me wrong. “Why” can be a great question — it drives much of scientific inquiry and can lead to great insight. And I believe in the value of therapy and psychoanalysis, having spent some time on the couch myself. But I am not a therapist. I am a coach. So when my clients veer into telling me why it is hard for them to change, I empathize with them and acknowledge the reality of their experience. And then I re-direct them toward questions that are more likely to empower them and to lead to action and learning. Together, we set out on the path to change.