Asking Why Transformed Me

I don’t mean to be dramatic with this statement. I’ve naturally been curious since I was a kid. But I’ve been known to be shy, too, up until my late 20s. By making it more of a habit to ask “why”, I started uncovering hidden gems, scattered about in everyday conversation, by adding this three-letter word to my vocabulary.

I used to think there was some unspoken limit to asking questions. That it would hinge delicately on either too many questions or highly personal questions. I could speculate a hundred reasons why—as young girls, we’re trained to be nice and obliging, I’m a recovering codependent, who knows. But I often felt a mixture of shock and respect at the audacity of other people’s questions. This could be at work, with friends, or casual observations of strangers when out and about. Did they really just ask that? Are they really going to answer that? Side note: one thing that can make my skin crawl is awkward silence.

Among the different jobs I’ve held, I worked in a corporate quality department for a couple years. We came up with standards and procedures for producing work consistently and doing it “right the first time.” We would audit procedures to see how well they worked and tweak as needed.

Before we made any tweaks, we’d conduct a root cause analysis. Stay with me. It’s the simplest thing. It sounds ultra-fancy to use something called the “Five Whys”. But it’s just asking why until you’ve gotten to the root of the problem. That’s it. And no, you don’t have to ask five whys each time.

Asking why helped us uncover way more information than if we saw a problem and assumed what to fix. For example, we had a review process that worked well in design but was complex for reviewing things like progress reports or memos. Instead of assuming that people didn’t understand the process (and adding unnecessary steps or guidance), we dug in and found out it was taking too much time. So we instituted a shorter review process that still caught errors but didn’t kill the budget.

The transforming part about all this, is that asking why helped me personally. I started seeing how making a slight assumption, but not following up, would cause my relationships to stagnate. By instead asking why, when it felt appropriate, I became intrigued by the spectrum of emotions the word invoked. From the simple power it can have when looking for answers, to innocent curiosity that creates connection. And when I started learning about codependency, it gave me the language to let go. If someone wanted to answer, great. If not, it wouldn’t affect my relationship with them whatsoever.

The more I asked why, the less I feared the question or its impacts. I began having higher quality conversations with friends and family (no pun intended). Why did you pick that vacation spot? Why did you decide to switch jobs/schools/etc.? This is all within reason of course. In general, I personally don’t believe in asking why people decide to have kids or not, or why they believe in a certain religion or not. Asking why to the point of defense, or putting someone on a stage to exhaustively explain themselves, isn’t the point.

Root cause analysis gave me permission to ask why. Learning about codependency gave me the courage to practice. Having these tools helped me uncover so much richness I would’ve otherwise missed.

Photo location: Road to Hana, Maui