Keys Consulting
Keys Consulting
Effective collaboration

Say why, ask why

From the time we are old enough to understand that something causes something else to happen, we are on a quest to understand “why” things happen.

“Dee helped our executive staff crystallize our goals at a multi-day strategic planning retreat. She facilitated buy-in by all the participants and then successfully steered us through a challenging schedule. Dee brings the right balance of focus and fun and her help was critical to our attaining specific deliverables for the meeting.” — Vice President-Marketing, Integrated Healthcare Systems, Inc.

“Mary is a total mystery to me,” Joe confided to a fellow manager at a break in the workshop. “I told her that she didn’t have to stay for the rest of the workshop. I mean, she looked really bored; she kept closing her eyes. I know she has a lot of work to do so I excused her. And, wow, she got really mad at me! I thought I was doing her a favor! She’s been a real pain lately!”

Joe is a well-intentioned manager who saw that Mary, one of his direct reports, “looked bored” during the marketing workshop to which he had invited his whole team. Why did Mary react like she did? Why?

The never-ending quest

From the time we are old enough to understand that something causes something else to happen, we are on a quest to understand “why” things happen.

By looking for reasons, we make sense of the world around us. This is never truer than in the realm of human behavior. We observe others’ behavior and we begin to make up stories in our head about their intentions. We want to understand why someone is acting in a certain way so that we know how to respond.

I say we make up “stories” about others because we rarely can intuit the intentions of another person. So we make assumptions about why our boss didn’t say hello to us today or why Mary keeps closing her eyes at the marketing workshop. Many times we do not even realize that we are telling ourselves these stories. Too often, we don’t test them out. We do, however, act from them.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, calls this process “The Ladder of Inference.” We observe someone’s behavior and we make meaning of that data, based on our beliefs, viewpoints and assumptions which are colored by our personal history and the culture in which we live. Then we draw conclusions about the person’s intentions and we act from those conclusions.

This is perfectly normal, of course. There are two problems with this:

  • We might be wrong.
  • The conclusion we reach influences the data we will even notice the next time we encounter a similar situation. Eventually, we end up having “history” with a person or group.

Two small sentences

To assist the managers and team members that I work with, I suggest that they remember these two small sentences whenever they enter into conversations that could go awry: Say why. Ask why.

Say why

It is most important to explain your intentions — to say why — when you think that the conversation might be difficult or when an ordinary conversation turns difficult for some unknown reason:

  1. First ask yourself, “What are my intentions in this conversation? What am I trying to achieve by talking to this person?”
  2. State your intention to yourself. Make sure that you can clearly state “why” in a way that is respectful of the other person. (If you can’t tell yourself the story, you’re not going to be able to tell anyone else!)
  3. Tell the other person your intention early in the conversation so that s/he will know “where you are coming from.”

Ask why

It is important to ask why when someone responds in a way that perplexes you. Rather than going through your list of assumptions about the other person’s intentions:

  • Remind yourself that you are interpreting the other person’s intentions and that you might be wrong.
  • Remember that most everyone does things for reasons that seem appropriate to them at that time. They may not be your reasons but they made sense to that other person.
  • When someone does something or responds to you in a way that puzzles you, be curious. Ask them “why” with curiosity. Remember not to ask in a tone of judgment. Ask “Why do you think that?” not “What the hell were you thinking??”

Do over

After going through his usual list of assumptions, Joe remembered “say why/ask why” so he decided to do the conversation over.

He knew his intention in the original conversation: to assure Mary that, if she needed this time to get something done, she could do so and he would have no objections. He also knew the data he was noticing, Mary closing her eyes and not participating. He reminded himself that he might be misinterpreting the situation. So he stopped by her cubicle at the lunch break with “say why√Čask why” in his mind.

“Do you have a moment? I’d like to talk.” Joe knew that it is always good to ask whether the other person is receptive before plunging in.

“Sure,” Mary mumbled, continuing to look at her computer screen.

“I wanted to explain why I said you could leave the workshop.”

At this, Mary looked up and her eyes flashed.

Undaunted, Joe continued, “It’s just that I noticed that you were closing your eyes and I’ve been concerned about your high level of workload lately. I thought that maybe you were thinking about all of the ways you could use your time rather than sitting in on some workshop I’d insisted everyone go to. I thought I was helping you.”

“Well, you weren’t,” Mary said softly.

“That puzzles me. You seemed upset when I suggested that you could leave if you wanted to. Why?”

“I thought you wanted me to leave.”

Now Joe really was puzzled. “No, that wasn’t the case. Why would you think that?”

“Because I know that I’ve been behind on some of my work lately. I thought you were giving me a hint that I needed to get my stuff finished. Sorry, Joe, I’ve been really tired lately. Not getting a full night’s sleep.”

“You’re not sleeping?”

“Oh, you know that my six-year-old has been sick with one virus after another this winter. I’ve been up a lot and I’m sort of worried. This morning, I wasn’t participating much at the workshop, so when you told me to leave...”

“I only meant to give you the option.”

“I hear that now. Then, all I could think was, ‘Joe doesn’t think I can get this material. He thinks my performance stinks and it isn’t worth it for me to be here.’ Guess I was wrong.” Mary smiled weakly.

“Want to come back for the afternoon session?” Joe smiled back.

When to use say why, ask why

Not every conversation needs this level of thought, of course. Use “say why, ask why” when:

  • You think you may be walking into a difficult conversation either because of the topic or your current relationship with the other person;
  • You find a conversation “going south” on you unexpectedly; and/or
  • You have made a decision that another person or group needs to understand and accept. People always understand better if you “say why.”


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Contact Dee Endelman ~ phone 206-320-0708 ~ email
Keys Organizational Consulting, LLC ~ 1521 17th Ave. E. ~ Seattle, Washington 98112
Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.

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Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.