Why we don’t ask why

Think about what comes to mind when you hear the question ‘Why?’. When I have asked people about this, many refer to when they were younger, living in their parent’s house….

  • Why didn’t you clean your room?
  • Why did you leave the door open?
  • Why is there an empty box of cereal in the cupboard?
  • Why has the dog not been fed yet!

Some also think about work:

  • Why are the numbers down this quarter?
  • Why is our ad not tracking well?
  • Why did we miss that deadline?

Do you see the trend?

While asking why might seem like the most direct way to get at what you want to understand, asking why most often does one or more of the following:

  • Makes people feel defensive or like they are being accused of something
  • Implies something was done wrong
  • Suggests you are blaming
  • Puts someone on the spot

So, people often answer ‘why’ questions in a way that suggests they are trying to justify their thoughts or actions. It’s almost as if the person asking the question is in a position of power, judging the person they’re asking. This defensiveness in response to ‘why’ questions often prevents us from getting answers that are below the surface.


How do we find out why, without asking it?

This is where the true magic of well-crafted open-ended questions comes in. There are so many ways we can ask questions to get at ‘why’ without ever using the word. Here are some that we love to use.

  • Tell me about that…
  • What are the reasons for…
  • Help me understand …
  • I’d love to hear more about… 

These questions or phrases (as they are not always asked as a question) open the door to richer conversations. Instead of feeling defensive, using these questions makes people appreciate the genuine intention to understand in a non-judgemental way.


Using alternatives to ‘why’ works really well in your personal life too:

  • It looks like science has been more challenging for you this semester. Let’s talk about what’s going on…
  • It feels like you’ve been a bit more stressed lately, what’s contributing to that?


If you work in a leadership role, alternatives to asking ‘why’ can help create empathy with team members as demonstrated by David Brendel in his book ‘Asking Open-Ended Questions Helps New Managers Build Trust’

  • Rather than ‘why is the launch behind schedule’, you could try this…‘I’ve noticed we’re behind schedule with the launch. What are the challenges we’re facing?’
  • Or, instead of ‘why are sales down this quarter’ how about this…‘What factors are contributing to sales being down this quarter – let’s talk about that.’

 These types of conversations help leaders more deeply understand the issues that their team members are facing. They achieve this collaboratively rather than from a place of judgement. For more on asking great leadership questions, my former colleague Laurie Thompson has recently written a recent article called ‘What’s in a Question’ on that topic.


What if the question IS why?

It just so happens what ‘why’ is one of the questions that most of our clients at Upwords want answered. After all, that’s often the objective of conducting qualitative research; to deeply understand issues like…

  • Why do people buy my brand?
  • Why do some prefer my competitor’s offering?
  • Why do people prefer this package over an alternative?
  • Why do people engage with our brand in certain moments?

The list of whys could go on.

Here are just a few examples that we use to understand why without asking it.

  • You just mentioned that you prefer using this brand, tell me more about that.
  • I’ve noticed that you’re holding this bottle differently than you held the last one, help me understand more about that.
  • You showed me that you store your snacks in that drawer, what are the reasons for that?

You may notice in these examples we’re referring to something previously said or we draw from observations. This can make a person feel like you’re actively engaging with them, which builds stronger rapport and encourages them to open up further.


A ‘why’ toolkit

In qualitative research, we have a few more tools to creatively get at why. We often will use projective techniques to engage at a deeper level with participants. Here are just a few examples:

  • Imagine brand x was a person you were in a relationship with, write a break-up letter to telling them the reasons you’re no longer with them.
  • Choose an image to depict how you feel about X and tell me about how the image represents your feelings.
  • Imagine you could not use brand (or category) X ever again, describe in detail what you would miss most.


Participants often find these activities to be the most fun and engaging parts of our studies. Similarly, clients love seeing their brands from these different perspectives. This is often where we are able to illuminate insights that enable a brand to pave a clearer path forward… or in other words, more deeply understand why. Of course, understanding ‘why’ when asked indirectly can be a bit more work to analyze but I guarantee it will always result in richer, more interesting and deeper learning than by directly asking ‘why’.