Why -vs- How
The “Why v. How” Conversation
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Written by Angelena M Plummer
Edited by Kara White Monroe
“You can give people all of the tools that they need to build a house, but they cannot build a house if they do not know how.”
Many conversations that start in a coaching or counseling office begin with the client sharing a problem or concern that has brought them there, questioning why the problem exists. They might ask, “Why am I so lousy at organization?” or, “I just can’t seem to get to work on time ever, and I don’t know why,” or “Why doesn’t my husband keep his dates with me?”
In asking these types of “why” questions, we are searching for sources to problems, not solutions. It is common for people to believe that if they can determine the source of the problem, then they can address the issue and change the behavior, whatever it may be. The real problem, however, lies in how people are thinking about the problem.
It is likely that we will never actually be able to pinpoint when, where, how or why the problem originated. Reasons for problems are generally located somewhere in the past, where we cannot return to address the issue. This leaves us stuck in present time, dealing with causes that we cannot undo. When we cannot undo the reasons for our problems, we are left to deal with the problem, and our focus remains with the problem. It is easy to see that asking “why” proves ineffective in our efforts to overcome or alleviate the problem. Asking “why” provides no forward steps to take and no direction towards our actual goal of being free of the problem. I often ask my clients if they had a choice, would they rather (1) be rid of the problem, or would they rather (2) know where the problem came from? Predictably, people more often choose the first option. Although, people usually believe that knowing the answer to where the problem came from will lead to the desired outcome of being free of the problem, but we just had the conversation of the reason it doesn’t work that way.
Now that we know that asking “why” is ineffective at providing a solution to the problem for us, let’s explore other side effects of asking “why” and then learn what to do instead. Try this now. Go ahead and ask yourself a harmless “why” question like this one: “Why did you wear the shoes you are wearing today?” Or if you are not wearing shoes then, “Why aren’t you wearing shoes today?” Think about it for a moment before reading on.
It’s likely to be found in your answer to the previous question that you thought back to the time you chose your shoes today. You may have picked them because of their style, comfort, or convenience. You may have remembered being in a rush on your way out the door or having planned ahead to wear shoes that matched your outfit. Whatever the reason, you likely had an image in your mind of going back to the time you put on your shoes. You may have even had a thought that went along with it like, “These will do!” or, “Where are my black dress shoes?!” However it happened that you remembered why you wore the shoes you did today, you briefly left the present moment and searched the past for an answer and an image in your mind of “why.”
It is also likely that with your answer, along came the word, “because”. You may have answered, “Because they are comfortable,” or, “Because I was late, and they were by the front door.” Regardless of positive, negative, or neutral influence, just being inclined to defend our answer to the question of “why” puts us in a state of defensiveness; even with something as non-threatening as why we wore the shoes we wore today.
So now, just by asking an innocent “why” question, three things have happened:
You were taken out of the present moment (where your power exists) to go back in time and examine “why”.
You were naturally inclined to answer a question (because humans are naturally inclined to answer questions) that started with “because” or some sort of term of justification to defend your answer.
You are now in a state of defending your answer, creating (automatic, unconscious) defensiveness.
This process may seem harmless when answering the question regarding your choice in shoes. Consider the consequences, however, when we are already focused on a problem and we find ourselves asking “why?” Asking ourselves “why” regarding a problem, results in a fourth, and even more destructive, outcome. It takes us from the present moment and automatically puts us in a state of defensiveness. We find that we are now defensive against ourselves. This internal conversation brings us to the fourth outcome:
You create internal conflict with yourself asking and answering a series of questions.
Consider what happens when someone asks themselves, “Why I am late for work every day? Why can’t I just get it together?” They are taken out of the present moment and inclined to answer a question where they immediately start looking for the reasons that “they can’t get it together”. What happens when they look for reasons that they can’t get it together? They find them. We can guess that those reasons aren’t very friendly. This brings us to the fifth outcome of asking ourselves “why”:
You begin to uncover even more reasons not to feel good about yourself.This type of negative thinking is not helpful.
What happens when you find the answer to your “why”? It shuts your brain off. If your brain now knows the answer, (and it’s that you are a lazy pile), then it doesn’t have to work anymore to find solutions. And what good is the answer for you if it is only going to keep you stuck being a lazy pile? This is a simple process of beating ourselves up, and it keeps us stuck. So, what can we do instead of asking “why”?
Ready!????!??!? It is a simple shift in thinking and asking “How”. “How could I get better at being on time for work?” “How could I better get it together for tomorrow?” “How can I stop being a lazy pile?” “How could I improve my organizational skills?” “How” is the antidote to “why”.
“How” keeps you in the here and now and creates a focus on the future, which is helpful in creating change and a new direction.
“How” allows for openness and exploration of possible solutions or other ways of doing something to reach your desired outcome.
“How” frees you from having to defend your answer.
“How” frees you from internal conflict and aligns all parts of you by searching for a solution.
“How” frees you from beating yourself up and finding even more wrong about yourself.
“How” keeps your brain ready and working, helping you create movement and getting you unstuck.
Are you ready to try it!? Pay attention to what happens when you shift from asking yourself “why” to asking yourself “how”? Notice the difference in the way one makes you feel compared to the other. Does one create more lightness or heaviness somewhere in your body? Maybe your shoulders feel lighter or the knot in your stomach loosened. Do they sound different to you? Does one sound like it’s filled with doom and gloom and the other freedom and movement? These are just examples. Pay attention to what happens for you as you give this a try.
What to do now that you know “How”:
It is very likely that we have been asking ourselves “why” for a long time, and it has become conditioned in our brains and our language. As you are listening internally for the times that you find yourself asking “why”, be aware that this can continue until you have trained yourself in this new way. Avoid feeling like a failure when you catch yourself asking “why”. Instead, use it as opportunity to do something different. Next time you notice yourself asking a “why” question, simply be thankful for its cue as it reminds you to ask “how” instead. Pretty soon, asking “how” will become your new normal way of thinking. One strategy that can be helpful is simply tallying the number of times you come across a “why” question in your mind during the course of a day. No need to worry about changing it right away, simply having awareness is a great first step to changing the kind of conversations you have with yourself. Another strategy is to teach someone else! People aren’t “wrong” for asking the “wrong” questions. They don’t know any different, (Yet!) Teaching someone else a new skill is a great way to internalize and learn it on an even deeper level. Don’t be afraid to explain this in your own way or share this article as a resource with others. Please be sure to remind those who you share this with that this is not a judgment about doing what’s “right or wrong.” It is about an alternative way of thinking that can be more effective and nurturing in your life. Thank you for taking the time to learn another tool to help you think your way to a better day! Love & Gratitude, Angelena
Turn the page for a related worksheet.
What to do now that you know how… J
Consider questions that you commonly ask yourself to examine if you have any “why” questions.Record them here.
Check in with yourself.Pay attention to what happens internally when you ask yourself the above listed questions.Do you feel negative or positive feelings as a result of asking those questions?
Determine which “why” questions are no longer serving you and decide if you want to give them up.
Create their antidote.Turn your “why” questions into “how” questions here.
Check in again.Do your new questions fit better with the outcome that you desire?
Create answers to your “how” questions.Remain open to possibilities.
Notice when you are asking yourself a “why” question.
Ask if this question serves you or makes you feel good or resourceful.(if it does, then stop there and work with it.If it doesn’t, then continue with this process.)
Give thanks for the question that has shown up.It is a reminder to think of something different.
Generate your “how” question.
Remain open to possibilities.