Question asking in the workplace LO21796
Tue, 1 Jun 1999 09:11:43 -0500

Replying to LO21760 --

Tony wrote:
>...have to be careful in how I ask questions with the word "why"
>since it can easily be misunderstood as assigning blame. "Why did
>you write this sentence this way?" will imply that something is
>wrong with the writer or how he wrote the sentence. Just
>to be safe, I like to try to substitute other words for "why" ...
>For example, it might sound a tad unnatural, but I might ask
>the same question as "Just so I can understand your viewpoint, how
>did you go about coming up with this sentence?"... And of course,
>the correct tone, facial expression, etc. can change the meaning of
>why as well.

We have had a good deal of discussion around the use of the word 'why' to
introduce questions. In our workshops on systems thinking, for example,
we -insist- on using a triggering question beginning with 'why' because we
have as our goal 'understanding the system' and 'why it produces this
problematic behavior.' And asking 'why' has delivered the best results.

In response to the 'blaming' response, I suggest that it is not the 'why'
but rather the word 'you' (in -both- of Tony's structures) which
precipitate the feeling of accusation. Of course, you can trip the
'blame' switch without 'you': if you ask, 'why are the sales people so
ineffective', well, don't be surprised if that evokes some hostility and
defensiveness from the sales staff. But it's not because of the 'why',
it's because of the personalization.

Now it could well be that in order to find out why -in fact- the sales
people are so ineffective we need to address the question straight on.
But certainly with sensitivity. And perhaps we might re-phrase the
question to, 'why is the effectiveness of the sales force lower than we
would like?'

Let me suggest that the genuine leadership in an organization lies with
the people who pose the questions. And the quality of the questions both
(a) reflects the quality of the leadership and (b) determines the quality
of the answers.

Michael A
- Michael Ayers
Mailto: Voice (651) 733-5690) FAX (651) 737-7718
IT CC&PD 3M Center 224-2NE-02 PO Box 33224 St. Paul MN 55133-3224
Sometimes the right question is, 'Are we asking the right question?'
Ideas contained in this note represent the author's opinions and
do not intentionally represent the positions of anyone else in this galaxy.


Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>