Why put people on the defensive? Avoid putting people on their back foot

‘Why’ is such a small and yet powerful word to notice, understand and be aware of as you use it. Really, why?

Well, it does two things very quickly, immediately in fact. Two things you want to avoid.

  • One, it sends people straight to the word “because” which is justifying their actions/decisions and
  • Two, it closes down information-gathering in the request for “the reason”.

Let me explain. As Big Bird from Sesame Street tells us:

“Questions are a great way of finding things out” and questions are crucial to us digging deeper, connecting with people, understanding what’s going on.

The trick about “why” is the effect it has on us and, more importantly, the effect it has on those we ask the question.

When children are growing up (and yes, we probably did it too) it’s seen as quite cute when they ask “why?” and then you answer and then they ask “why?” again and again and, often again. As you answer them you’ll probably say “because” and “because” etc until eventually “because I say so!”.

Day to day, we’re constantly asking questions (well I hope you are, based on Big Bird’s philosophy!) to find out what’s happening, what progress there is on things, how people are, where things are etc.

Notice the difference in this situation. Imagine I was with you and asked you what you’re up to this weekend.

You might say “oh, I’m off shopping with friends and then on to the cinema” for example.

Then I say “Oh, why are you going to the cinema?”. You’ll say, “because XYZ film’s out and I want to see it”.

It’s an innocent enough question with, in this case, no further agenda. And yet, you’ve justified to me “why” you’re going to the cinema. The first thing you say – and the first thing most people say when you ask a question beginning with Why is ‘because’ and then you’ve gone inside and thought about the reason you decided to go to the cinema. They seek information not justification and when we justify ourselves we’re on the defensive, we’re explaining the reasons as opposed to giving information, however innocent the scenario. It’s also quite irritating to have to explain why – and here’s why. Because we have to take a position and the question implies some judgment behind it.

If I ask you the same question and when you tell me you’re off to the cinema with friends I say to you “aah, what are you going to see?” or “who are you going with” these are much less on-the-spot questions.

Now this is the powerful bit. Take this scenario to the workplace, or to a home life discussion about something that has some emotion attached to it,

“why did you do that?”, “why haven’t you done that?” “why are you going there?”

and you’re immediately putting the other person on the back foot, defending their decision or their position. That’s the moment when you close the door on more information, often before you’re ready.

It’s one of the many small words that make a BIG difference in our day-to-day conversations and directly affect the reactions and responses we get. Working with a Board of Directors recently discussing this very word, they all had an “aha” moment and something useful and simple to take and use straight away. The trick is we don’t know until we know, do we?

Try it out with someone as an experiment and get his or her feedback from the experience. They’ll tell you why they prefer one question to the other, because you’ve asked for a bit more information rather than put them “on guard” like a fencer, defending their position. It’s part of how you keep people open to you and your requests and that’s always good.

How do I learn more about Kay?

To have the opportunity to discuss any blind spots you know you have or things that are slowing you down or holding you back as you connect, persuade and compel people at work; click here to apply for a complimentary conversation with Kay.

Article reproduced with permission of Kay White, Communication Specialist and Mentor at www.wayforwardsolutions.com. Kay shows professionals how to be understood. Get quicker, faster and better results by becoming a more effective, influential and savvy communicator – everywhere in your life.

In addition, you can listen to an exclusive interview with Kay where she shares several exclusive tips on how to immediately make your communication more powerful and persuasive: http://www.maximisepotential.co.uk/how-to-develop-effective-powerful-communication/

About the Author

Hi, I'm Tom Burkinshaw, I co-produce the Maximise Your Potential Podcast and Website and my goal is to help as many people as possible be successful in life, careers and business, by offering free coaching and mentoring through a series of unique interviews from inspiring people who all display exceptional self-belief, mental toughness and desire to achieve. Thank you for taking the time to visit Maximise Your Potential!