The Importance of Asking Why

As a teacher for the last 15 years, and with corporate training systems in my background as well, I’ve had countless opportunities to “break the ice” with students and colleagues. That said, even typing the term “Ice Breaker” makes me cringe. But yes, I have started every convention, every meeting, and ever semester with the dreaded Ice Breaker.

“OK, everyone! It’s really great to meet you! Right now I’m gonna ask you to please tell us…blah blah blah about yourself…then tell us the answer to the question: What’s your absolute favorite…blah blah blah?”

I then walk around the room, trying to encourage open engagement and interesting responses to seemingly benign questions. But, before we’re more than sixty seconds into this dreadful task, I bring the activity to a screeching halt.

“Ok! Seriously! How lame is this? How many of you are bored out of your skulls? Why are we doing this anyway? Our answers are boring, aren’t they? Why are they so boring? Because, with the exception of the odd narcissist who can’t wait to share a story about the time he went skydiving, we don’t care. Do we?”

Now that’s an ice-breaker. I know, I know. It’s kinda evil, but bear with me.

“The ‘what’ is always boring! The ‘why’ is what we really want to hear. The ‘why’ is the juicy part. So, Billy! Yeah…you! You told us that street tacos are your favorite food, right? Now tell us why. You didn’t just say ‘tacos.’ You said, ‘Street tacos.’ What’s the difference? Tell us the difference. Tell us your ‘why.’”

At that moment, Billy stopped and gathers his thoughts.

“Ok, so, two years ago I got to see my dad for the first time in a long time. I went to San Diego to just hang out with him. We walked all over downtown. He’s so funny, we could hardly walk sometimes because we were laughing so much. Then, when the sun started going down I started getting cold so I asked him if we could go home. He said that he wasn’t done making me laugh yet, then he surprised me and bought me a Los Angeles Clippers hoodie! It was huge and so warm. We never really had a lot of money, so that was pretty awesome. Then we walked past a street vendor on the way to his truck. My Dad said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Can I please get six tacos? Oh, wait, just a second. Mijo! Are you gonna have any tacos? Oh. Oh. OK ma’am, you better make it eight so my boy can eat too!” Everyone around us started laughing. Then we took our tacos and a soda back to his truck. We pulled the tailgate down and talked and laughed forever! Those were the best tacos ever. Not quite three weeks later my dad got killed on his motorcycle. I never saw him again. Street tacos take me right back to the tailgate of his truck; right next to him. Street tacos…I love ‘em!”

I promise that if Billy and his dad had been eating Brussels sprouts, then Brussel’s sprouts would be Billy’s favorite food.

The why always matters so much more than the what.

Now imagine what happens if we ask “why” not just once, but several times in a row. Imagine if we learned the truth behind our conflicts and concerns in the same way that we learned about Billy’s favorite food. What if we asked why someone lied? What if we asked why someone held such hostility toward another? What if we asked one nation why they attacked another? Then, when they respond, we said “Why?” again and again…like a curious toddler who asks why 25 times in a row!

But it’s not just the asking “why” that helps us dig to the bottom of our issues and concerns. It’s asking a better why. If we just choose one topic, one issue, then ask “Why” enough times, we’ll almost always find the answer; the cause, which leads to the solution.

Why did you lie? I guess I lied because I…I just lie all the time without really thinking about it.

Why do you lie all the time? I don’t know, I guess I’m just boring and I want people to think that I’m special.

Why do you want people to think you’re special? So I can have friends!

Why would do you want friends who like you for the person that you aren’t? Why wouldn’t you want your friends to like you for who you are? Because they just don’t! Because I’m boring! There’s nothing special about me.

Why don’t you think that you’re special? Because I’m not, because nobody has ever seen me as special.

Why don’t people see you as special? Because how can they see me as special if they never really see me at all. I’m not really here. I just…here.

So what we’re dealing with here isn’t a “liar.” We’re dealing with a kid who feels lonely and unappreciated, and worse than that, he feels invisible. We can all agree that we would probably treat a kid who’s lost and heartbroken differently than we would treat a chronic liar. Maybe, instead of greeting him with anger, disappointment, and low expectations we would greet him with patience and sympathy, or maybe even a hug. The real issue was not the lying. The real issue was that his emotional needs are clearly not being met. That’s a remedy that we can get behind.

But it doesn’t stop there. There’s another beautiful and unintended benefit to asking why. When we ask why aren’t we actually saying “I care about you.? Let’s not talk about the lies. Let’s talk about you.”

But does the same process works for bigger, broader, more complex societal issues and obstacles? Addiction? Corruption? Racism? Greed? Sexism? Abuse? Let’s pick one and see!

Women make up 51% of the US population yet they currently fill less than 25% of the political offices in the United States. They also make up less than 6% of Forbes 500 CEOs. That’s not simply out of balance. It’s grotesquely out of balance. Why?

So why are women so grossly underrepresented in politics and big business? “Maybe big business sees women as inferior for some reason?”

Why would they see women as inferior? “Maybe because women can be a little bit…???…sensitive?”

Why do you see sensitivity as a weakness? “Maybe women wouldn’t handle a stressful situation as well as men?”

Why do you think that men handle stress better than women? Our prisons are full of men who clearly didn’t handle life’s stresses appropriately. “Well, what about pregnancies? Aren’t they going to take time away from work to raise their baby?

Why do you think that only women can take care of a baby? I’m pretty sure that she didn’t get pregnant by herself. “Ok, but there are so many men who have decades of experience at the the highest levels! Clearly, they’re gonna do a better job.”

Why don’t women have decades of experience at the highest levels? Why do men? “ummmmm???”

And once we’ve exhausted all the “Whys,” eventually the truth will have no more corners to hide in.

So why are we still using petroleum as fuel? Why do we think we can create a vaccine for a new virus when there’s no vaccine for cancer viruses? Why are we ignoring scientists’ warnings about the environment? Why does the US have only 4% of the world population but more than 25% of the world’s prison population? Maybe more importantly, why are there so many Raider fans?

Ask why, then ask it again, then ask it better.

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