September 25, 2019 ~ 2 min read

Get rid of 'why'

Weekly TipsSpeaking

I used to think that "how" I said something shouldn't matter. What should matter was the meaning behind what I was saying.

This is blatantly false.

If you want to instantly improve your communication skills, banish the word 'why' from your vocabulary. At least at the beginning of a question.

People are not machines

The idea that how we say things shouldn't matter is seductive, especially to engineers like me. After all, I can write the same computer program in many different ways, and if the outcome is the same, the users of that program don't really care how it was written.

This approach misses the detail that when we are speaking, we are trying to influence a person, not a machine.

People have all sorts of different quirks about the way we hear and understand things. We have cognitive limitations that limit how much we can perceive at once. We have different mental models we're bringing to a conversation.

And we have emotional reactions to particular words.

Asking someone 'why' instantly makes them defensive

One of those emotional reactions is to the word 'why'. If I ask you "Why did you do that?" you are instantly on the defensive.

If I simply rephrase to "What was your reasoning for doing that?" the emotional reaction drops a level.

The question is the same, in content, but the response it triggers is very different.

By the simple, mechanistic removal of 'why' from questions you ask, you will systematically receive better and more thoughtful responses, because you will make your listeners less defensive and less emotionally reactive.

Speaking as a continual set of experiments

I sometimes think about communication as an evolving set of experiments where I'm trying to understand how people work. Often I'm trying to improve my mental model for one person in particular.

But I'm also continually trying to understand "hacks" like this where you can get reliably different responses simply by changing the way you say things.

Removing 'why' is the simplest and most reliable one I've found, but there's a ton of these out there. Have any good one's to share? Shoot me an email and let me know! I'd love to hear from you.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at