Why didn’t you call me? Why did you do it” Why didn’t you wait for me? (All accompanied by critical tones)
Do you ask these kinds of “why” questions? Why do you ask them? Take a moment and think about the kinds of responses you usually get. Are they satisfying? And if you are given an explanation, do you ever say, “Oh, now I understand”(not sarcastically) and move on. Probably not. We are rarely satisfied with an explanation of why they did or did not do it. So, why ask?”Why” questions usually put the other person on the defensive. They require an explanation. They focus on the past or on something the other person did or didn’t do, that they cannot redo. However, beneath the question is often a statement, “What you did hurt me” or “What you did was wrong.”When I am asked these questions, I usually do not answer them right away, having learned that whatever I say will usually not satisfy the person asking the question. So why answer a question that will not serve either of us. What I want to know is how my actions or inaction affected them, what they want “right now” and what they want “for the future.”I might respond by asking, “Why are you asking?” or “What do you need, right now?” while being “curious” about the actual purpose of the question being asked. That often gets at the statement “beneath” the question. It might be something like, “I am really angry that you did not tell me. I felt excluded,” or ” What you did hurt my feelings.” This helps me to focus on the other person’s feelings, instead of defending what I did or did not do. Usually the person is much more interested in having his or her feeling acknowledged than getting a detailed explanation of why I did what I did.
I also attempt to put myself in their position to learn more about their emotional response. If they were hurt or upset in some way, I will let them know that I now recognize how my actions affected them. That may be all that is necessary for the conversation and it ends comfortably.
Other times, the person may want something more, but is not directly telling me what they want. They may not even know themselves what they want. So I ask rather than “mind read” what they want. Once I determine what they really want, I may be able give them what they need. I also realize that it may not be something I can give them, like “self acceptance” or “self esteem” or “inner peace.” Of course, many people have a difficult time expressing exactly what they want and would prefer if I just read their mind. Some people even have this belief. “If you loved me, you would know what I want without me having to tell you.” When getting married 25 years ago, I made sure that this was not one my fiancee’s beliefs. I’m actually a pretty good mind reader, but prefer a relationship where each person takes responsibility for expressing what he or she wants and encourages the other person to be direct.
More often that not, a person will ask for an apology. Have you ever offered an apology and the person is still not satisfied? Perhaps they even say, “I don’t believe you really mean it.”
When people ask “Why” questions, the person receiving the question often gets defensive. So instead of being responsive to the other person’s feelings, they are reactive, feeling their own feelings which might be some combination of guilt, blame or shame. Even if they do offer an apology, it will come across as insincere since they are focusing on “their” feelings and not those of the person. They apologize in part because they don’t want to feel bad. If the other person senses this, they might become angry because their feelings are still not being considered. Now we have two people whose feelings are not being considered.
Part of my job as a psychotherapist is to help couples consider each others feelings. This can be especially challenging when each person feels wounded. So if people would stop asking these damn “Why” questions and instead, were more forthcoming about what they wanted from other person, it would make my job a lot easier.
Perhaps this blog has raised more questions than it has answered. Hopefully they are “what” and “how” questions.
By the way, I do answer “why” questions. When the questioner is curious and actually interested in the answer, I answer.
Steven Leeds, MA. Licensed Mental Health Counselor is the co-director of The NLP Center of New York, certified NLP and hypnosis trainer, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist.