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Watch Your Language Series (Part 3)

In 2009 Simon Sinek gave a fantastic Ted Talk called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”. If you have not seen this video, I would highly recommend it. The core of Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” is that, to drive people into action, you need them to understand why they are doing what they do. They need to understand their purpose. Over the last 10 years, I would often show this Top 10 Ted Talk video during Leadership programmes that I facilitate.

However, when I do, it always gets me thinking about the word “WHY” and how we use the word in everyday language to sometimes detrimental effect.

Now, don't get me wrong, there can be positives to using the word WHY. As adults we can ask ourselves “Why” to obtain greater clarity on our choices or certain facts we need to consider.

We often see children express their curiosity by repeatedly asking the question "Why…?". This is how they learn, communicate, explore boundaries.

However, the word WHY can also be a barrier to communication. Again, think back to your childhood - as a child, this is the one question which could generate a sense of guilt or fear.

• Why did you do that?

• Why did you not do as I asked?

• Why did you do this...?

And so on.

And as a child, you may have gone on the defensive, ignore the question or defend your action to the hilt with the silliest of excuses.

In communication there is always the sender of the message and the receiver. Starting a sentence with the word “WHY” immediately puts the receiver on the defensive. The word “WHY” requires the answer to be a cause, a reason, or purpose for the action taken.

Consider the workplace where you have asked a team member or colleague to complete a task. When they report back to you with the task, it might not be as you had expected.

If the first sentence you utter is “Why did you do it that way?”, you may be evoking memories from childhood and requesting the receiver to justify their action.

Now you might just be expressing curiosity, however for your colleague you are subconsciously implying that what they have done is wrong. This can put them in a position where they feel they need to justify their action, and they can become defensive.

This one word could entrench them in a position where they will not consider an alternative way of doing things. They become attached to their solution. They will then only provide you with the bare facts for taking this course of action.

These types of questions allow you to see the task from your colleague’s perspective and can possibly generate a new way of doing or a new learning.

Avoiding the “WHY” in your personal relationships and practicing alternative phrases can also reap rewards.

Next time your partner forgets to do something and you say “Why didn’t you do that?”, consider asking instead "What was happening for you that led you to forget…?”.

This type of approach demonstrates curiosity rather than blame.

Next time your children leave their homework until the last minute and there is the age old argument “Why are you doing your homework at the breakfast table?”, consider expressing curiosity and saying something like “Tell me what is the benefit in leaving the homework to the last minute?”.

Again, this type of approach demonstrates curiosity rather than blame. Rather than an argument, they might surprise you with an answer such as “I was struggling with it last night and thought about it overnight and came up with the answer.”

Avoid starting the conversation with a WHY.

Next time you want to ask a question, watch your language, jump beyond your own initial impressions and be curious.

Start with “Tell me more...”. Go on, have fun, give it a try.

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