The Power of “Why?” (Post 21)

Some parents won’t thank me for this post, because children can drive their parents mad by asking “Why?” all the time! However, used sensibly and tactfully, the question, “Why?” can unlock some – possibly most – of our problems.

A Head of Department – Science, as it happened – was telling me one day about a pupil who had been, as he saw it, very cheeky to her teacher. When the teacher tried to get her to settle down to the task she’d been set, the pupil asked “Why?” – and whenever the teacher gave her an answer, the pupil would respond, “Why?”. I can see that it was a difficult situation, and knowing the pupil in question I think it was a genuine challenge to the teacher’s authority.

While I listened sympathetically to the Head of Department, and agreed that that sort of behaviour wasn’t acceptable in the circumstances, and we agreed on a way forward which would support the teacher in question, I wish I had said what I also thought, which was this: “Isn’t it strange that the very behaviour we want to encourage in pupils as scientists – constantly asking “Why?” – is the same behaviour that can cause so much friction when used differently?”

The Five Whys is something I was told about during a post-graduate Business Management degree course. The idea is that if you want to get to the bottom of a problem, asking “Why?” five times will get you to the source of it.

Like much Management tuition, that idea suffers, I think, from being packaged in such as way as to make it attractive and memorable – but there is a core of valuable truth in it.

“Why?” unlocks reasons. Take a simple example, in the business setting. A customer complains about the order he has received. Question 1: why is the customer complaining? Answer: the order was incomplete. Question 2: why was the order incomplete? Answer: only three out of the four books ordered were included. Question 3: why was one book missing? Answer: packer no. 425 broke off his packing to talk to a colleague. Question 4: why did he break his routine in order to talk to a colleague? Answer: because he was very stressed. Question 5: why was packer no. 425 very stressed? Answer: because he felt his line manager was bullying him. And now the business knows what it has to tackle, in order to prevent any more such mistakes and to improve workplace relationships.

Note that we don’t yet know whether the bullying is a fact, or whether the packer is misinterpreting his line manager’s behaviour or attitude towards him – but the underlying cause of what might have seemed to be a simple administrative error has been revealed as something more important.

How about “Why?” in our personal lives? I read recently about a “Habit Coach” who needs to find out what she calls her client’s “intrinsic goal”. ‘Someone will say they want to lose weight because they want to be thinner. And I’ll ask, “Why?” and they’ll reply that they want to be the best they can be, and I’ll ask, “Why?” And we’ll go on like this until we uncover the core issue, which is a desire to be happier.’

Finding out “Why?” is important in all aspects of our lives. To finish where we began – with science – Terry Pratchett once wrote that the most exciting sound in a science laboratory isn’t “Eureka!” it’s “That’s funny … .”

Enjoy finding out “Why …?” in all aspects of your life!

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