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Manage Like a Coach – Remove Why

by lyn christian on February 9, 2010

When we manage people we ask tons of questions. Things like: “When is this due?” “Who is responsible for reporting back?” “Is this within scope?” The list of questions goes on, and on, and on. With so many questions to ask it might be helpful to know that there is one simple adjustment in our questioning that can help us be more effective, and be more coach-like.

This adjustment discourages the use of the word “why.” “Why” seems like such a short, to the point, such a straightforward little word. However short and innocent “why” seems, “why” comes fully loaded for bear. Whenever we use the word “why,” we are placing ourselves in a stance of dominance and force. “Why,” implies judgment. “Why,” sends the brain’s flight and fright system into red alert, and the person attached to the brain with it. “Why,” just doesn’t set well with the people we are managing. It doesn’t set well when used against us either. Go ahead and start noticing how you respond when pressed to answer a question that starts with “why?”

So what is a Manager to do if “why” is suddenly placed on limited usage within your vocabulary? You could replace it with “how” or “what.” You’ll be surprised how well you can get the same basic information you need by starting your questions with these replacement words, and by avoiding “why.” The following two examples outline how this might happen during confrontational situations:

An employee is reporting back to you on several budget items. As you sit down to review the spreadsheet with him, you notice he didn’t use the standard budgeting forms required by your accountant. Instead of asking, “Why are you not using the standard forms?” you might try asking, “How would you like me to review this information? It is presented differently than required. Go ahead and guide me through this and be thinking of how you can transfer this information to the standard form for our next meeting.”

One of your key employees has just challenged your comments during a meeting. As you are walking out of the meeting afterward you decide to deal with the situation immediately. Instead of asking her “Why did you say that?” you could ask, “What did you want me to hear when you challenged my ideas back in the meeting?”

The negative impact of using “why” and the empowerment of using “how” and “what” questions is best demonstrated when you actually adjust your own conversations. As a Coach, I challenge you to fine tune your vocabulary by replacing as many “why” questions as you can with “how” and “what” questions for one day. I challenge you to feel the difference and realize how much more effective you can be by reducing the use of “why.”

In summary, “why” questions often sound accusatory and “how” or “what” questions tend to keep the dialogue open for deeper reflection and calculation. When you manage, do you want accusations to shut down your teams or deeper thinking to open up potential? Now that you know about “how” and “what,” what do you want to about it?




About the Author:  Lyn Christian is the founder of SoulSalt, Inc., a coaching and coach training company.  She is passionate about the “free-agent” worker who wants to earn their living and live their lives by doing what inspires them.  Get more information by visiting or contact Lyn directly through

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