Why I think We Can Do better Than asking ‘Why’ 

The other day I read this (German toot) on Mastodon (This toot apparently has ‘timed out’ by now. My answer is still available on Mastodon, though Stephan: “@Minnasophie@troet.cafe @wandklex@mastodon.art Da…” – Software development is a social activity):

Die Frage ‘Warum’ blockiert oftmals das Annehmen einer Situation.


My translation to English: ‘The question ‘Why’ often blocks accepting a situation.’

I immediately reacted to this.

I thought back to the day a doctor diagnosed me with cancer. He saw a question I was about to ask and before I started to speak, he told me to not  ask ‘Why’. He advised me to  instead concentrate on how I wanted to deal with the situation.

That really changed my thinking. To help me with this, he asked whether I had any plans for the near to mid-term future, something that I wanted to achieve. This changed my thinking from intense worrying extremely to something I I could focus on.

I still worried about the treatment! But I also thought about any plans that I had. And indeed, there was one big plan that I did have: To give a keynote at Agile Testing Days 2018! I WANTED to do it. Badly.

I later realised, another good news that was hidden in the question about my plans for the future: Apparently the doctor thought I had a future, at least the chance to have it.

As it turned out, I was not able to give the planned keynote, since the therapy massively compromised my immune system and that meant I had to avoid larger crowds of people. During the traditional flu season, I was strongly advised to not meet more than 3-4 people at a time. And to avoid even that whenever possible.

Eventually, in 2019, I could give the keynote, and it was received well. Very well, indeed.

Now, having read that quote from above, I started to think about asking ‘Why’ – or even asking ‘Why’ five (!) times to dig into the cause of whatever one is investigating. There may be better questions or approaches. Is asking ‘How do we want to deal with this?’ a better way?

I can imagine that especially when trying to understand a situation that went bad, avoiding ‘Why’ may be a good idea. At least in German ‘Warum’ (of the similar terms ‘Weshalb’ or ‘Wieso’) already carries with it a tiny bit of shaming or (suspecting) guilt. This is  something that one very likely wants to avoid, if the plan is to actually get to the root causes of a situation.

Given the learnings from my illness, I think the following question is an improvement on asking ‘Why?’:

How do we want to deal with this situation?

In my experience, asking ‘Why?’ often also involves ‘you’ as in ‘Why did you do X?’. This adds to the potential of shaming or assuming guilt: Now, there is also some separation between the one asking and the person being asked. 

I had good experiences using ‘we’, when figuring out problems. Using ‘we’ signals that, in fact, we have a problem. 

Using ‘We’ puts us on the same side of a task: we are facing the problem together. Therefore neither of us ‘is’ the problem (or maybe we all are), but… the problem is the problem. 

Having made clear that this problem is our problem, we can collaborate to find a good solution. Even better, we might find three (or more) solutions and then select the best one for the given context, at that moment in time, and implement it.

This is related to Jerry Weinberg’s observation about understanding problems:

If you can’t think of at least three things that might be wrong with your understanding of the problem, you don’t understand the problem.”

Gerald M. Weinberg. Are Your Lights On?. Part 3 – What Is The Problem, Really?. https://leanpub.com/areyourlightson

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