Why, Oh Why – In praise of the question “why?”

Nancy Willard once said, “Questions are more important than answers” (I’ve also written on the importance of asking questions). And, as Seth Godin points out, the most important question you can ask is “Why?” “Why?” is the mother of all questions.  And it isn’t asked nearly enough.

“Why” is important for so many reasons. It’s a clarifier, a disrupter, a teacher, and an excavator. Asking “why?” means you’re plugged in, interested, and digging deeper.  And it helps you on the back-end, by focusing and defining success.

7 ways “Why?” helps you:

  1. It demonstrates attentiveness and active listening. If you, or someone else, asks the question “why?” it means they have been involved, engaged and listening. That they want to know more, to understand better, or to torture-test thinking. And that they care. This, in itself, is a very good sign.
  2. It demands a thoughtful response.“Because” is not an acceptable answer to “Why?” One must think clearly in response to the question. They will have to elucidate their rationale and reasons. It may even cause folks to think more deeply than they had prior to the question – and even get them to re-think what they’d previously thought or done.It’s even good to ask yourself the question “why?” “Why did I do that?”, “why do I want that?”, “why do I think that?”  This helps you clarify your own thinking – and may help you to re-think some assumptions you’ve made about yourself.
  3. It can break through rote or formulaic behaviors. Even the worst statement in the world – “because that’s the way we do it here” – can be broken down by asking “why?” “Why?” questions assumptions, routines and automated processes and demands that they answer to basic questions of relevance, appropriateness and effectiveness.
  4. It digs deeper. People often ask, “what happened?” They hear about situations, actions, activities, experiences. People talk about the steps they took and who said what. They point to results, figures, data and percentages. But they stop there. They don’t dig into why any of this happened. “Why?” seeks underlying truths and insights – it forces you to dig below the surface. “Why?” forces people to peel back the layers until they arrive at true understanding.
  5. “Why?” helps clarify decision-making and success criteria. Once you’ve dug in and answered the core “why’s?” of any assignment or project, you can lay out exactly what the decisions will be based on – does the solution and our actions answer to the “why?” of the project? If they don’t, there’s no reason to proceed. And, similarly, you can begin to define the KPI’s and success metrics of your project – what are the measures that answer to “why?”.
  6. “Why?” is a great teacher. When you ask “why?” of someone (a direct-report, especially), you are, in essence, holding them accountable. They need to define the rationale for their thoughts and actions. This helps them understand and learn, for the next time.
  7. It demonstrates curiosity. I’ve said this before, as well, but curiosity is a very good thing. Asking “why?” demonstrates curiosity – and what’s better than that? You’re engaged in expanding your mind, your understanding. And you’re interested in actively learning. Bravo!

We hear kids asking “why?” all the time. But, over time, we begin to stop asking it. And we stop gaining from the power of the question.

Let me know your thoughts and questions? Including why I wrote this…


  1. As an executive and leadership coach, I’m not a big believer in asking why questions. You might be asking, why. ;-p

    Asking why keeps us in neutral or brings us to the past. Why is an information question. What is an exploratory question to move my clients forward.

    Instead of asking “why do you think this happened?” I’d ask “What have you learned from this?” How can we take this situation and move forward quickly. Rapido!

    You say why forces people to peel back the layers to discover truth. I feel “why” just keeps them waddling in the muddle. “What” propels them forward.

    1. Thanks a lot for your thoughts and insights, David. Not sure I totally agree – I think we may be having a bit of a nomenclature issue. But I like your idea of making sure that whatever the question, it drives forward movement. Wallowing in a muddle is never a good place to be. Thanks again for your visit and your thoughts.

      1. I’m not Dave I’m Steve. It’s not about nomenclature. It’s about what do you want the person thinking about? The past or the future?

  2. I believe the questions must always push the toward a goal. Steve, I think I would disagree with “What” being more exploratory than “Why” – they achieve different goals and, used properly, both (truly ANY questions) are exploratory. I see “why” as leading to a better gauge of the values of the company. It may be somewhat inherently historical, but, to paraphrase, if you don’t know the history, you’re doomed to repeat it. Muddle is definitely bad, though. Keep moving forward any way you can. Great Post Michael! Great commentary, Steve!

    1. Very true, Brian – you have to know the historical factors, at a minimum, in order to learn and deviate from them, if that’s what’s called for. Thanks for the discussion – this is great. Continue!

    2. As an executive coach, I’m not interested in learning the background. My only interest is getting the client to think about moving forward. Why keeps them looking backwards.

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