Being constructive and helpful is not a confrontational act. At least it’s not supposed to be. But reality has a way of doing very interesting things, even when actions are performed with the best of intentions.
I did a webinar yesterday entitled “Why: The Essential Question” (there is a recording of it up here if you want to check it out). It built on some of the ideas that I explored in my post on back in July about the importance of “Why?”
When I was initially thinking about the webinar, it was an open question for me as to whether I could pull off an entire presentation around one word (the answer to that turned out to clearly be a “yes”). Now that it’s done, there is arguably food for two or three more webinars, not to mention some more writing (the post you are reading right now being proof of that).
What was particularly interesting in the presentation yesterday was the question-and-answer session afterwards. While the presentation resonated—quite strongly by all accounts—with participants, there was also a recognition that the simple act of asking “why” is perceived to be a challenge, a threat or a hostile act. Representative questions included, “How do you avoid the hostility implied by asking why?” and “How do you get past those people who’s only response is ‘that’s not for you to know.’ In those instances, asking ‘why?’ is seen as you being the problem.”
This is an incredibly challenging perspective. If we are going to maximize success, we need to be clear about the problem we are trying to solve, why we are trying to solve that problem and why the solution we are implementing is the most important. Once we are clear about the why, everything else flows from that point. Without knowing why, we are a lot closer to taking shots in the dark. We lose the criteria to judge the best option going forward, and start going with “good enough” or “what seemed reasonable at the time.”
Why, therefore, is not a question of challenge and hostility. It is a question of support and understanding. When we ask why, we are trying to figure out what really matters. We are attempting to sort out the drivers behind a request, so that we can deliver the best, most reasonable and most appropriate solution under the circumstances. Why is not a challenge; it is an invitation to partnership. It is asking our clients to tell us what is important to them, so that we can bring our best insight, expertise and work to solving the problem well, in a way that the problem stays solved.
There is no question that why can be seen as challenging, confrontational or problematic. That’s a perception of others, and while we can’t control their perceptions we can control our actions and intentions. So if we are going to be successful in getting to why, we need to be extremely clear about a few key points:
- why the question of “why?” generates resistance and puts people on the offensive
- what we are trying to accomplish when we are asking the question “why?”
- how we can approach the conversation to get the understanding we need
The questions posed during the presentation were incredibly revealing about where some of the resistance to why comes from. The idea that people are hostile to questioning, or see you as part of the problem for doing so, is extremely telling. Sometimes, this is about them having a domineering personality (which is about as polite a way to express it as I can think of) where they simply want action, and don’t want to take the time to explain themselves. Not helpful, but it happens. Anyone asking someone else to do something for them should be willing to make the time to ensure that the request is understood, and that the person taking on the work fully understands expectations and has a clear picture of success.
More often, though, defensiveness and hostility is a product of fear and insecurity. Telling someone that it’s not for them to know why, when they are the ones being asked to deliver on the request, is unquestionably counterproductive. It is the result of not actually being comfortable that they themselves understand why. It is feeling that their reason why might be inadequate, insufficient or ultimately unsupportable. It might be a product of them passing on work from others where they didn’t get a why either. And it might be because there never really was a why in the first place.
All of those possible reasons explain where insecurity might come from. And they are all very normal human reactions. The challenge is that they get in the way of doing something meaningful, useful and relevant. If we want to provide the best support possible to our clients, we need to know what a good result looks like. We need to be clear about their why. And our first challenge might be helping them to figure that out.
The reason we need to know why is not because we are in judgement of our clients. It is not because we will necessarily withhold our services if we don’t get a good answer. It’s because without a good answer to the question, we can’t deliver a good solution to the problem. Asking why is about suspending a rush to a pre-defined outcome. It is about exploring why a problem exists, why it is being seen as a problem that needs to be addressed today, and what a good solution to the problem looks like. Once we are clear on why we are doing something, everything else flows. We know what we need to do, we know how we need to do it and we know what is needed to make the solution useful and meaningful to everyone else.
What the answer to why encapsulates is several fundamental and essential nuggets of truth that we must understand if we are to in turn be successful. It is separating problem from solution. It is clarifying how the problem is seen. It is getting a sense of the thinking that led to the default solution. It is probing on what features of a solution make a difference. It is defining value. It is identifying what success looks like. All of this from one little, powerful question.
All of this helps identify how we might go about asking the question “why?” in a way that is seen as more constructive and less combative. Without question, a simple, blunt “why?” can be received the wrong way. A confrontational “so what?” can be even worse, useful as it might actually be as a way of probing for the truth.
In my work as a consultant, I ask “why?” a great deal. Without question, part of my ability to do this is a product of being an outsider. I’m theoretically less concerned about making a career limiting move. I’m seen as independent, and that distance sometimes makes the probing and questions seem less personal. I’m presumed to have expertise, and so there can be a suspension of mistrust and a willingness to answer my questions. And because I don’t necessarily have all the history of a situation, it’s entirely reasonable for me to ask about it.
At the same time, I don’t always ask why directly. I try to be constructive in posing the question, provide context about where the question I ask comes from and try to explain why I am asking and why the information is important for me to understand. When asked to take on a project, then, I don’t just blurt out “Why would you want to do that?” Instead, I might try something along the lines of, “That sounds really interesting. I’d like to get a better sense of the background leading up to your request. If we can explore the problem a little bit more, I’ll be best positioned to make sure the solution I propose is most appropriate and most likely to give you the outcome you are looking for.”
That’s a lot more circuitous. It’s also a lot less direct, and therefore less likely to be perceived as hostile or challenging. I need to ask questions to be successful in my role. And sometimes those questions are difficult to answer. So maximizing the likelihood that I get honest and truthful answers is essential.
At a recent kick-off meeting for a new project with a new a client, for example, I needed to take them through the background documentation that had already been developed. In one twenty-page document, I had multiple questions on every page. I essentially needed to understand the basis for every assertion, assumption and statement that they made. It would have been very easy for them to look at all of those questions as me ripping apart everything that they had done so far. That wasn’t my goal, but it would have been a reasonable conclusion.
I prefaced the conversation with an explanation of what I was about to do and why. I explained to them the kind of questions I was going to be asking, and why the answers to the questions were important. I identified how those answers would then shape the work that we were about to do next. During the questions I periodically checked in on how they were doing, and whether they were seeing value from our conversation.
I challenged their thinking a lot during that conversation. I forced them to confront a number of factors that they were taking at face value as being true, without having really been explored critically. By the end of the conversations, they had rethought a number of assumptions about the project they were thinking about, and broadened their perspective to see several different options to how to proceed forward.
For me, that’s doing my job. It’s the value that I bring to the table as a consultant. But it’s the value that we are all supposed to bring to the table, in each of our roles. Whether we are project managers, analysts, facilitators or executives, we are working to bring our expertise to bear in order to produce the best solution possible. We are partnering with those we work with to bring their understanding and our insight together in order to figure out ways that make the most sense, and that produce the best results. We are working to be part of the solution, not trying to be perceived as part of the problem. To do that, our work has to start with why.