Why is “Why?” a No-No?


As many of our readers know, John leads Sing-Alongs for Alzheimer’s Patients, in addition to his writing and training in communication.

While visiting with some friends from out of town, John described the Sing-Alongs he does.  He commented that the word has gotten around among the Activity Directors of the area dementia care facilities.  That has resulted in him being invited to do Sing-Alongs, resulting in his becoming quite busy, doing at least two or three Sing-Alongs each week.

After listening inquisitively, our friend looked John straight in the eyes and said, “John, why do you do this?”

I could see that John was taken aback.  He told me later that he felt somehow “invaded.”  He’s happy to talk about what he does and the impact that music has on dementia patients.  And the answer to her question was no secret, so why did he feel invaded?

The word “why” can do that.  But why?  It’s probably because it’s a “close ended” question.  Closed questions leave the person queried with no where to go but to respond directly.  The person tends to feel like he is on the witness stand being interrogated and, thus, feels defensive and often acts defensively.

I’m sure the questioner thought that her question was showing interest John’s work.  But, in fact, a question like this tends to interfere with the flow of conversation and divert interest to the questioner, rather than to the other party.

He will feel called upon to answer but may not have time to give a thoughtful answer.  It is likely to be curt and to the point.

To open up the topic, an alternative process might be to say, “Tell me what has prompted you to do this kind of work,” or “I’d be interested to know what led you to do this kind of work.”  These sort of open-ended questions enable the person queried to take command of the conversation.  It suggests that there may be many factors that led to the decision.  “Why?” implies an easy answer, leaving the queried person to feel obliged to give a short answer, when the answer may be quite complex, probably more interesting.  It will, no doubt, prompt more conversation and provide a great way to learn about each other and the subject at hand.

Have you had this experience?  Tell us about it.

That’s it for now.

~ Carolyn and John

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ICS WorkplaceCommunication, Carolyn Shadle, PhD, and John Meyer, PhD


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