Why? It’s a simple question, really. The answer may be difficult or complex, but the question is quite simple. “Why” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “for what cause, reason, or purpose.” Even that explanation is generally simple.
Recently, I listened to someone speak about the importance of asking “why.” As I listened, I found myself agreeing that doing so makes a lot of sense. But, as I refocused my attention to student affairs, I found myself struggling a bit. This struck me. Here I was, listening to someone talk about the importance of seeking clarity yet struggling with how that simple concept is often made excessively complex in professional life.
My children have no difficulty asking “why?” to me or my wife regarding anything about which they are curious. Professionals, at least in student affairs, often have concerns about this question. For one, the use of the word “why” is sometimes seen as too confrontational as if it will automatically put the other person on the defensive. (Why?) Instead, we often teach staff and students are often taught in graduate school to phrase the question differently, such as “Can you tell me the reasons…?” (Why?) Would my reaction be any different to my children asking me “For what reasons is the stove hot?” instead of “Why is the stove hot?” No. My answer is the same. I would, however, think to myself about the first question and wonder why they didn’t just ask why. Both versions request my explanation of some process or information. Neither put me on the defensive by use of their words alone. It’s the tone of the questioner that would cause that.
“Why?” seeks to understand, asks for clarification, and demonstrates that one was listening. So, take some time this week to ask “why?” to genuinely understand the purpose or rationale. Use the word “why.” Don’t change it to a phrase. See what happens. You will probably find it is easier to ask the question you have been meaning to ask, but could not find the right words. Just try “why?” After all, it’s okay to ask, “why?”