Why Not Ask Why?

2011 Don Gray

It all started with a tweet I posted:

“Why” questions trigger feelings bypassing data input and thinking. #dontdothat

As this got retweeted, interesting questions started coming my way:

  • What about the Five Whys?
  • Do you have data?
  • What is your context?

All good questions.

“Why” questions have the ability to both gather data and to probe for underlying thoughts and decisions that lead to action. Other interrogatives (what, when, where, how) provide a better way to gather data since they focus on physical items or actions.

So when do Why questions work well? How might Why questions lead to unexpected results? What can we do about that?

Solving Problems: Toyota and the Five Whys

I was writing process control code for a living when I first heard about the Five Whys. It made sense for finding a problems root cause. The example went something like this:

  1. Why did the line stop? Because the conveyor gear reduction box froze.
  2. Why did the gear reduction box freeze? Because it didnt get lubricated during the last preventive maintenance.
  3. Why didnt it get lubricated during the last maintenance? Its a new piece of equipment and wasnt on the preventive maintenance check list.
  4. Why didnt it get added to the maintenance check list when it was installed? Because we dont have a standard way of adding items to the check list.
  5. How can we create a standard way of adding items to the check list so this wont happen again?

Asking why uncovers another layer of information that eventually leads to the problems root cause and allows us to craft a solution to (hopefully) prevent the problem. Since were starting with observable data, asking why works well here.

Gathering Data: Five-year-old Whys

Anyone who has spent time around children has probably experienced a period of incessant whys.

Why is the sky blue? Because air molecules scatter light from the sun.

Why do the air molecules scatter the light? Because they get in the way of the suns rays.

Why do they get in the way?

(And so on.)

Often, the question-and-answer process ends with Because I said so, thats why.

Asking why provides children with new information, and data expands their knowledge, so why works well hereat least until Because I said so.

When Why Might Not Work Well

Your teammates, managers, and coworkers are neither mechanical processes, which dont care if we talk about them, nor five-year-olds attempting to gather more information about their world. They come complete with experiences you dont know about and ideas about how things should work. As such, your why questions may trigger in others an emotional response that catches you unaware. What might generate such a response?

An Interaction Model

The Satir Interaction Model [1] provides a framework for understanding how interactions proceed, as shown in figure 1.

Expanded Satir Interaction Model

Figure 1

Take Tony, for example. Youve noticed the build server has been sending emails announcing that the build broke, and Tony usually makes the commit that occurred just before the build that broke. Wanting to be helpful, you head to Tonys cube and ask, Why do you keep breaking the build? Youre looking for information. The message has been spoken and becomes the input.

Based on how Tony feels and his background, he can infer several different meanings. He may think youre picking on him. He may think you mean Tony, youre incompetent. He may interpret the question as a request for information.

The meaning Tony chooses determines his feelings about your message. If he thinks youre picking on him, perhaps he will feel afraid or threatened. If he believes you think hes incompetent, he might become defensive, or he might be relieved that you might help with the problems hes having.

Tony also will have feelings about those feelings based on his background. Perhaps his father taught him not to back down when threatened, or to prove youre right when challenged, or even that accepting help shows weakness. Tony may feel ashamed, angry, confused, or relieved.

Based on Tonys life experiences, he may defend himself by:

  • BlamingThe stupid formatting rules take too long to check. If IT would buy us better computers, this would not happen.
  • PlacatingIm so stupid. I should do better.
  • Being super-reasonableHas anyone checked the rules on the build server to make sure they agree with how the builds work on my workstation?
  • Feigning irrelevanceIts almost lunch. Where should I go today?

After these steps, Tony will work on his response. What can he safely say? What do his family, social, and corporate cultures say about what he can say? Some comments can be career limiting. Does he have an always be agreeable rule? These commenting rules affect his verbal response.

Everything between the Intake and Response steps happen internally for Tony, but you can guess what happens based on his response. If Tony replies in a way congruent with your intentionIm having problems with formatting. Can you help me figure out whats happening?the request for information succeeded. If Tony becomes bellicose, belligerent, or his answer bewilders you, the question triggered a meaning and feeling not related to your request for information.

The Interaction Model and Temperaments

Simple Interaction
Figure 2

In Congruent Action [2] Gerald M. (Jerry) Weinberg collapses the steps from Feelings through Defenses into a single step, which he calls Significance, and correlates how Keirseys Temperaments [3] (see the sidebar) tend to work through the Interaction Model:

  • SJs stay in Intake mode too long.
  • NTs tend to go instantly to Meaning.
  • NFs tend to jump immediately to Significance.
  • SPs go so fast it looks to others as if they jump instantly to Response.

More than half of IT professionals implicitly skip the Intake step based on their personality preference. You want to know why to collect data41.6 percent will look for the meaning behind your question and another 12.1 percent think about how the question makes them feel.

Jerry offers the following suggestions:

  • For NTs/NFs, ask, What did you see or hear that led you to that conclusion?
  • For SJs, ask, What can we conclude from the data we have so far?
  • For SPs, appeal to their desire to be clever and ask them to teach you how they did it.

Use Data Questions to Gather Data

Questions that start with other interrogative words, such as when, what, where, and how, help people focus on the data aspect of the question.

If we ask Tony a different question, we can help him focus on the data we would like to knowfor example, What steps do you take prior to committing to the build server? or How do you decide its time to commit your code? Tony still traverses the Interaction Model, but weve explicitly asked for data.

Over the years, Ive had some why questions bounce back to me with responses that left me wondering how what I said triggered that response. Using the Satir Interaction Model, Ive learned to unravel the responses. Ive also learned that if I want data, I should use data-oriented questions that start with how, what, when, and where, and use why as a last choice.

On the other hand, if you want practice unraveling communications, start with why as often as possible.



“There are two types of people: people who divide people into two types and those who don’t.” Barth’s Distinction

Dividing people into groups is a time-honored tradition. Circa 340 BC, Plato divided people into four groups: Artisans, Guardians, Idealists, and Rationals. Since then, many others, including Aristotle, Galen, Paracelsus, Fromm, and Myers, have found ways to divide people into four groups.

In 1978, David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates developed and described the temperaments in modern form. They found that selectively combining [N with T/F and S with J/P] produced a descriptive personality system similar to the four temperaments … described centuries earlier. [4]

Motivation Strengths Weaknesses Percentage
in IT Profession
Guardian / SJ Need to be responsible
Value tradition
Artisan / SP Need for freedom and action
Value being in the moment
Rational / NT Need knowledge and competency
Value theory and mind
Idealist / NF Need to understand themselves
and others
Value authenticity and integrity
Overly emotional

When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail. Abraham Maslow

I like to remind clients that temperaments represent one way of understanding people and how they interact.


  1. The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond, 1991, Science & Behavior Books, Inc., pp 121-129
  2. Quality Software Management, Volume 3, Congruent Action, 1994, Gerald M. Weinberg, pp 108-109
  3. Please Understand Me II, 1998, Prometheus Nemesis Book Company
  4. MBTI Manual: A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, 2003, Isabel Briggs Myers and Mary H. McCaulley
  5. From What Type Am I? Discover Who You Really Are, 1998, Renee Baron
  6. From the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Atlas of Type Tables, Macdaid, McCaulley, and Kainz, CAPT, 1985

This article was originally posted on StickyMinds.com on January 28, 2011

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