Don’t ask why

Microprinciples

Of the five reporter’s questions the one you should ask most rarely is why. Whether you’re doing customer research, interrogating a suspect, or helping a friend through a heartbreak, don’t ask why.

Asking why can invite speculation from an uninformed subject:

Why did the king abdicate the throne?

Asking why can put your bestie on the defensive:

Why is the living room a mess?

And asking why can push folks to justify rather than explain:

“Why are you so sad?”

Note how this is different from:

“What made you feel sad?” Or “When did you start feeling that way?”

Don’t start with why. What, where, and when are simple questions that let the other side plainly recall information. They invite your conversation partner (let’s call him Gary) into the cabinet of their mind, where they can collect the raw materials of story.

“What” gets Gary thinking visually. “Where” provides a sense of place. “When” gives him a sense of time. And “How” is the causal question that lets Gary explore the relationships between all three.

If there is a moment to ask why, its at the end, and by that I mean “of life.” Why is a philosophical question aimed squarely at a boundless fog called quintessence, or purpose, or cause.

Sure, we all want to know “why” but you are not permitted its bounty until you have asked every other question in your power to ask. And when you have done so, you’ll find you have no reason to utter this word at all.