On the nature of helpful questions and conflict resolution.

I think words are tools we use to build meaning. I don’t think that there are “bad words” that exist, but different situations may call for different tools.

From an early age, many of us were taught that the tools to learn the basic meanings of a situation are “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” and “Why?”. I’m sure it was a really good idea to have all those words start with W, after all it would make it easier for children to remember. There’s also five of them! That means kids can count them on their fingers. Somewhere along the line we decided “How?” was really important too, but it ended up not fitting the W pattern and it requires an extra hand to count.

There’s an argument to be made that “Why” and “How” are two flavors of the same question, but have very specific uses.

why-and-how

Sometimes you hear the idea that “How” should replace “Why” in workplace settings (talking to you, buzzwordy corporate America), but rarely do I hear anyone unpack the meanings of these terms and their differences. It comes down to a difference of emotional expression, versus information gathering. They’re both important parts of seeking understanding, and I don’t think one should replace another.

Often times, when I hear disagreements between people, “Why” as a question carries a lot of weight. Even the way I could write that word in text, the emotion isn’t even attached to the letters itself, but the punctuation. In most cases, I’m not sure “Why” is being asked as a question, but an expression of emotional state.

  • “Why?!” – Anger
  • “Why…” – Defeat and sadness
  • “Why!” – Defiance

This isn’t to say “Why” is a poor question. We use it as an expression of emotion and all three of the examples above also carry an air of the speaker being emotionally cornered. I think that some people might interpret “Why” as wholly a cue for explanation and might miss the emotional weight being cradled along with the question. After all, “Why” is a fundamental existential question, and it’s one we rely upon when we feel a situation steps outside our bubble of predictability and comfort.

When this is being asked between two people, “Why” is very one-directional. It’s an expression of emotion alongside a desire for more information that places the other person in a greater position of responsibility. It’s asking a person to respond to someone’s emotional state, andWhy and How then explain a reason for some situation coming into existence. When I hear “Why” used this way, it is more helpful to bring attention to the emotions on the table first before approaching the explanation of events at hand.

Conversely, I feel “How” as a question invites both parties to review the set pieces that brought a situation together. For it to be asked, both parties have to agree that the goal of learning “How” something happened is worth knowing. More importantly, for this question to be helpful, both parties should have some level of mutual emotional understanding to authentically hear each other’s story.

“Why” and “How” fundamentally express a difference between emotional and cognitive content. Both are important!