So often, we are quick to jump to conclusions. We see, hear, or feel something, interpret that thing, then take action. But, how often is your first glance accurate? If over 90% of your behavior is generated without your conscious effort, it stands to reason you might want to re-evaluate those first-impression judgments.

As anyone familiar with the world of Quality, Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma, and Safety can tell you, the 5-Whys are a powerful skill that help you see past your initial reactions. The idea is to ask why something happened, then ask why again to the first answer, and repeat until you get to the “real” root cause.  Sometimes this takes only three “Whys”, sometimes it takes more than five.

Here’s an example:  A machine operator cut’s his finger.

Why? #1              The operator wasn’t wearing his gloves.

Why? #2              He didn’t have gloves at the work station.

Why? #3              No gloves were available in the supply room when the operator checked.

Why? #4              The assembly shop needed some of the cut resistant gloves for a special project and took them without telling anyone.

Why? #5              The gloves were taken on night shift Friday night and the buyer didn’t have time to replenish the stock because they didn’t receive the message until Monday morning.

Obviously one could keep the questioning going if desired, though there’s enough uncovered above to understand the true cause was much deeper than first glance.  In this case, as in many, the participants were well intended and the issue was something that can be worked through and prevented in the future.

So, why not apply the concept of “Why?” to communication?

Next time you find yourself in a conversation where you and the other person are uncomfortable and tensions are growing, give “Why?” a shot.  Simply changing your perspective from anger, frustration, confusion, fear, sorrow, etc. to a curious perspective can be as effective in communication as it is in quality, safety, and continuous improvement.

Why would this approach help?

We naturally develop personal stories about other’s motives based on our own filters: our strengths, experiences, knowledge, observations, and beliefs. It would be rare, if not an all-out miracle, to find someone with all those variables identical to yours – in fact, we know there’s a 1 in 33,000,000 million chance you’d meet someone with the same top 5 Strengths in the same order. Left unchecked, our filters will create stories that guide our actions and reactions, creating friction.

Try curiosity instead!

Get curious about others’ perspectives. Curiosity is the best tool you’ll ever use, and its completely free.

Ask why! In our language, we call this a mental pattern interruption. Meaning, as you begin to feel those feelings of frustration, anger, fear, confusion, sorrow, etc. growing, choosing to ask “Why?” interrupts your path to diminishing communication and redirects your mindset.

First, ask: “Why would a decent human act this way?”

Then, continue asking “Why?”

For example:

  • Why might the other person be reacting this way?
  • Why would they choose that specific behavior?
  • Why are they using those particular words?
  • Why did they choose to share the information they did?
  • Why am I feeling the way I am based on the words or actions of the other person?

The “Why?” pattern interruption helps you shift from fight or flight mode to curiosity.

Curiosity enables you to be present and engage in healthy learning dialogue. As you learn more about yourself and others, your ability to communicate effectively grows.

One last important point! The key is to try. Your first attempts won’t be perfect. As with anything else, this takes practice. Stick with it as the rewards are immeasurable.


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