In his popular approachability blog, Scott Ginsberg argues that questions beginning with What are better than questions beginning with Why to avoid defensive responses. While I agree with some points, I believe this argument neglects the more important word: You.
Scott’s recent blog post suggests that rather than accusatory phrases beginning with Why, it is better to use exploratory phrases beginning with What or How or Where: [underlining added by me]
DON’T ASK: “Why did you…?”
DO ASK: “What was your reason for…?”
DON’T ASK: “Why would you…?”
DO ASK: “How could you have done it differently to avoid this error?”
DON’T ASK: “Why didn’t you…?”
DO ASK: “Where could you have gone to follow the proper procedure?”
DON’T ASK: “Why couldn’t you…”
DO ASK: “What, specifically, were you confused about?”
DON’T ASK: “Why weren’t you…”
DO ASK: “What factors went into your decision to…”
You, You, You…
I believe it is the you in each of those questions that carries the accusatory tone, not the why. The word you commands attention and can put the other person on the defensive. The unspoken message being received is “Hrumph! They don’t care about the problem… they are just trying to pin the blame on me!” I think several of the questions labelled “DO ASK” above could generate a defensive response.
So, to avoid putting someone on the defensive, avoid placing the focus on them. Instead, place the focus on the action, task, or entity involved. Some examples demonstrating this are:
- Instead of: “Why did you miss the target?”
Try: “Why was the target missed?“
- Instead of: “Why couldn’t you deliver the report?”
Try: “What were the obstacles which prevented the report from being delivered?“
- Instead of: “Why didn’t you catch this risk?”
Try: “Why wasn’t this risk caught?“
In these examples, the focus is placed on “the target“, “the report“, and “this risk.” Follow-up questions which would further avoid defensiveness include “What can we do about this?”
Tone of Voice and Body Language
Scott also points out that “the wrong tone of voice or body language” increases the likelihood that the listener will interpret the verbal message as criticism. I agree completely. In fact, I believe tone of voice and body language are probably more important factors than the precise words used. In any interpersonal communication, nonverbal communication is very significant. This is particularly true when emotions are involved
NSR Murthy states:
Much of the “emotional meaning” we take from other people is found in the person’s facial expressions and tone of voice, comparatively little is taken from what the person actually says.
For more on the wonderful complexities of non-verbal communication, the BBC and the British Council provide an accessible primer.