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Ask questions that start with "What"

Ask questions that start with "What"
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya / Unsplash

One of the books I read on vacation was "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stanier. In the book, Stanier recommends asking questions that start with "What" and avoid questions that start with "Why." Starting with "why" tends to put people on the defensive and can lead to unnecessary details that create a cycle of trying to solve others' problems for them. Stainer provides a few examples:

  • Instead of "Why did you do that?" ask "What were you hoping for here?"
  • Instead of "Why did think this was a good idea?" ask "What made you choose this course of action?"
  • Instead of "Why are you bothering with this?" ask "What's important for you here?"

I first encountered this concept years ago from Lara Hogan and have since incorporated it into my communication style at work. In code reviews, for example, I prefer asking "What was the reason for doing X?" rather than "Why did you implement it this way?" It may seem subtle, but to me, it focuses on a more curious and open dialogue.

I have found Lara Hogan's list of 20 Great Open Questions to be a useful tool for putting this concept into practice and coming up with open questions in my day-to-day interactions: