Why, the much-maligned three-letter word, is actually one of the most powerful cognitive tools we have at our disposal.

Sure, as kids we’re sometimes shut down for asking Why? too many times, about everything.

Little Joey: Why are we going to the store?

Dad: We ran out of coffee.

Little Joey: Why?

Dad: Well, we drank it all.  I was working hard this week at night.

Little Joey: Why?

Dad:  I had a big project at work.

Little Joey: Why?

Dad: Just because.

Have you been in a discussion like this with a child?  Frustrating, right?  But think about what Joey was doing in that discussion:  He was beginning to practice the fine art of analyzing a situation, of getting to the bottom of things (which will require lots of refinement as Joey grows older, of course).  And this determination to peel away layers of generalizations, assumptions or rote use of words like, uh huh or okay will serve Joey well in adulthood.

It would serve all of us well, in fact, to at least think of the question Why? after getting lots of reports from colleagues, partners, advisors or employees.  Because Why? or the refined versions like Would you walk me through your thinking on that? or How did you come up with that conclusion? can create the solid ground under our feet to move forward confidently, as a true team.

Co-Founder #1 of Startup:  I’ve thought about it, and I think we should launch fewer products and focus more resources on each one we do launch.

Co-Founder #2 of Startup:  Okay, why?  Tell me what you’re thinking.

Co-Founder #1:  We could be making more per marketing dollar if we buy advertising at discounted rates for fewer ads.

Co-Founder #2:  Interesting.  Show me what you mean.  If we had fewer products last quarter, spending less on the ads because of discounts we’d get, what sales would you project?

See, Why? and its elegant equivalents, even when repeated (a little like a kid), helps get to the truth of a matter, as reliably as any word can.

We’re often too timid or too tired or too tolerant of half-truths or assumptions to use the word Why?   But, whyavoid it, when it is one of the most powerful words in the English language?

Dr. Keith Ablow


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