Article Category: Communication Skills

Defensive Reponses: Not “Why”, but “You”

Communication Breakdown 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.

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Comments icon3 Comments

  1. jesse says:

    The crux of the issue is the intent of the question. It depends upon the nature of the conversation, whether the questioner is looking for someone to accept responsibility for a problem/situation or to have the person involved in the solution. Note Scott’s suggested rephrasings are collaborative and forward-looking, with the idea to keep the respondant engaged and motivated. The use of “why” is a bit of a sidebar.

  2. Great points – didn’t even think about the “you” factor!


  3. Jason Black says:

    You’re right that “what” beats “why”, and staying away from “you” is better still, but I think that the solution is not simply to put all the questions into the passive voice as a way of eliminating “you”. It’s too easy for passive voice constructions to come across as condescending. It’s too easy to sound like a parent asking their kid “And how did the window get broken?” when both parent and child know darned well that the expected response is “Because I was throwing my ball in the house.” Listening to passive voice formulations of those questions can be worse, because the listener still knows you think they are at the root of the problem, only you’re too chicken to come right out and say it. Focusing on the future, rather than the unchangeable past can help, as can putting yourself into the question (your “we” suggestion).
    Better alternatives to your examples include:
    Instead of: “Why did you miss the target?”
    Try: “Help me understand how the schedule was off. Is there something else we should be considering when we schedule our projects?“ [puts the focus on the questioner’s lack of information in a neutral way with a focus on improving future performance]
    Instead of: “Why couldn’t you deliver the report?”
    Try: “What got in your way of delivering the report?“ [implicitly blames the obstacles rather than the person, although this method runs the risk of letting someone deflect responsibility for poor performance onto external factors]
    Instead of: “Why didn’t you catch this risk?”
    Try: “How did that possibility slip through the cracks? I don’t want to miss it if something like that comes up again.“ [puts the focus on failure of an approved process (risk analysis) than on the person who was (presumably) following that process, again with an eye toward improving the process rather than blaming the person]

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