Ask What Happened, Not Why it Happened


Columbo solved his mysteries by asking many questions; as all the great detectives have done – in real life as well as fiction. All the great inventors and scientists asked questions. Isaac Newton asked, “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and, “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked, “Why do the Galapagos islands have so many species not found elsewhere?”

By asking these kinds of fundamental questions they were able to start the process that led to their tremendous breakthroughs. We should ask questions about situations we face. It is the best way to get the information we need to make informed decisions.

But maybe not “why?” questions

In the arena of social-emotional learning (SEL), both for children and adults, asking “why” questions can take us away from our emotions and into our heads to explain why.

“Why did you decide to skip school yesterday?” causes a shift into devising (in our head) a reason for our past behavior. The question itself has emotional overtones that skipping school yesterday was a bad thing to do. Maybe it was a chance just to hand out and decompress. Or maybe she skipped school to take care of her ailing grandmother on a day when her mother wasn’t going to be available.

Sometimes we just do stuff without thinking it through. Sometimes we don’t know why. So when things haven’t gone according to plan, just barking ‘why did you do that?’ to someone isn’t likely to yield much useful information. It’s not enlightening, it’s disempowering.

From an SEL point-of-view, a better question might be, “I missed you yesterday. What happened?” This is a more relaxed approach that is likely to enable us to evoke a broader range of cognitive and emotional responses on which we can build.

‘Why’ questions can really close down learning because they take us backward. They are past-oriented questions. ‘Why’ tends to be more abstract and ambiguous. It taps into motivations, attitudes, and values. ‘Why’ is philosophical. So, when we are pressed for time, do we really want a philosophical discussion?

What to use instead of “why”

By substituting ‘why’ with open-ended questions, you help draw out a person’s inner resources. ‘Why’ may be quick, but the other open questions, especially ‘how’ promote concrete action.

‘Why’ may often trigger a stress response (or anxiety) which puts us into a state of survival (the classic ‘fight or flight’ response) where we are only able to access a limited range of cognitive responses, namely those related to survival.

‘How come?’ is a more relaxed approach that is more likely to enable us to evoke a broader range of cognitive and emotional responses on which we can build.

Instead of ‘why’, you might ask:

  • Tell me more
  • What happened?
  • What were you feeling while this was taking place?
  • What other options have you explored?
  • Who else might you talk to?

Use ‘why’ sparingly and opt for a broadening range of open-ended questions. This allows you to tap into a richer source of practical information without engaging their defenses, and helps people learn and move forward.


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Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is a co-founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training adults across the country in emotional intelligence and the power of discussion circles for teens. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

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