I was hanging pictures up with another Scout leader in our hall last week. He was holding the ladder, and I was merrily drilling and banging away. “What was your thinking when you did it that way?”, he asked. I stopped and explained why I was doing it one way and not another. Later I realized he got me to tell him what was going on without me feeling threatened. I would have asked “Why are you doing it that way?”
The words we choose have an impact on the people we’re talking to, but not always the one we want. But/and is one such combination.
Why/What is another.
Sometimes when we’re trying to figure out what’s happened, or what somebody was thinking, we’ll ask:
Why did you do that?
Consider how you’ve felt when somebody asked you “Why?” I can remember my Mom asking me, “Why didn’t you do your homework?” Of course I’m not going to tell her “Because I’d rather watch TV.” That would just provoke her into pulling out the wooden spoon. So she got the “I dunno” answer instead.
What would be a better question? Yes, “what”.
“What” is less threatening. It sounds less like a personal attack. It displaces blame on something else. Even when we’re sure personal blame needs assigning, asking “Why” is not going to get you a straight answer. “What was stopping you from doing your homework?” is another way to ask.
There are a couple of exceptions to this, of course, because tone and body language still count for something. “What were you thinking?” is something I’ve had occasion to ask my teenagers, but it doesn’t often get me a straight answer. Still, it’s better than “Why did you do that?”