October 10, 2008

Past-focused why-not questions

The why-not question can be pointed in two directions: to the past and the future. When it's pointed to the future it can be a useful and pleasant question, especially when the tone of your voice is inviting ("why don't you join our club?"). However, when the why-not question is pointed at the past, it can often be a quite useless and sometimes even mean question.

For instance, if you ask someone 'why haven't you done you job like you should have?', what you're doing is asking someone to start telling something negative about himself. You’re inviting him to criticize himself. When you're asking someone why he has not done something right you're placing him in a difficult position. It is important for people to like themselves. Asking them to give negative explanations about their behavior (or worse, their intensions) is asking a lot. The chance it will work is very small. The odds are you'll be evoking a defensive response. And even if the other person is prepared to start criticizing himself, it is still doubtful whether that will be useful. Even if it has become clear why someone has NOT done what he should have done, it will still be doubtful whether that will explain how he will do a good job the next time. Because knowing why something does NOT happen is not the same as knowing why something DOES happen. If someone admits he has forgotten something important, this does not provide an answer to the question how he will be able to remember the next time.

So we'd better be careful with past-focused 'why-not questions'.

1 comment:

  1. I often suggest leaving the entire block of "why" questions off the table. There are a few helpful "whys" but they do tend to imply blame, weakness, negative judgement. Good post.


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