Communication Tools: Don’t Ask “Why” Questions

September 12, 2022

So far we have looked at ways we can better communicate by the way we share feelings, the positives and negatives of stings and rationalization, and reflective listening. Today, I challenge you not to ask “why” questions. The reason is best illustrated by a question, “Why shouldn’t you ask why questions?” If you answered, “I don’t know,” then you are correct.

Think about the response you get when you ask a child, “Why did you do that?” They will respond, “I don’t know,” or “Because,” nearly every time. The reason this is true is because “Why” questions are not really questions at all. They are statements disguised as questions. When we ask, “Why did you do that?” we are really saying, “Don’t do that!” Few of us likes to do things that cause another person a problem on purpose. Our actions, conscious and subconscious, are done to meet a personal need, and so we do the other person a great service by not belittling them with questions they don’t know how to answer. Often the other person is embarrassed or insulted when we ask why questions they cannot fully answer, especially when it is in front of other people. So I repeat, “Don’t ask why questions.”

It is better to ask questions that start with “Who, what, when, where, or how?” For example, if our son pulls his younger sister’s hair, if we ask, “Why did you hit your sister?” we will likely get the maddening response of, “Because.” Our son will learn how to better meet his needs if we ask something like, “What did you hope to gain by pulling her hair first?”

The response may be something like, “She pulled my hair first.” At this point we have learned a whole lot about the fight. We can now point out that pulling her hair will not meet his need, but instead will lead to punishment. We can help him understand there are better ways to solve his problems with his little sister, and then follow through with our punishment.

I have heard a number of grooms to be laugh at this communication tool. He tells how he was so proud to help his fiancé address the invitations. Invariably, the bride looks at what he is doing and asks, with some level of contempt in her voice, “Why did you do it that way?” He doesn’t know how to do it her way, and was just proud of himself for offering to do it at all. He says the predictable, “I don’t know.”

Jesus always asked questions like, What do you want, Where can you get that, How did this happen? When Jesus met the blind man named Bartimaeus he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see” (Mark 10:51). At first glance Jesus’ question seems odd. Why would a healer ask a blind man what he wants? But never assume sick or crippled people want to be healed.

Many times I have been surprised by what people actually want when they come to me for help. I have met people in the hospital who will admit that being in the hospital is their favorite place to be. They get treated nice by their family which doesn’t happen much, and the hospital staff caters to all their needs.

My favorite example was the man who came to me with hepatitis C, deep financial troubles due to his medical bills, and he had just received custody of his 5-year old daughter. I figured he was coming looking for money, but fortunately I followed Jesus’ example and asked what he wanted me to do for him. He told me about a time in his life when he had it together, and he realized it was when he had an active faith and church life. He wanted me to help him make a recommitment of faith to Jesus Christ, and help him turn his life around. That day he gave his life to Christ, he and his daughter rarely missed worship, he learned to pray, read the Bible, and live a life of integrity. He turned out to be the most talented carpenter in town, and within a year his financial troubles were solved.

I rarely ask my wife, children, and church members “why” questions, and I have found this to improve my communication with them immensely. How often do you ask “Why” questions? Could you improve your communication by asking questions a different way? (To find out more about Al Earley or read previous articles, see