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Why “Why?” Is A Waste Of Energy

November 22, 2014


I watched as the little boy stood with his lip quivering. His mother repeated her question, “Why did you hit your sister?” The little boy repeated his answer, “I don’t know.” In frustration his mother scolded, “Well then… You can take a timeout. I want you to sit there and think about what you did and why.”

The mother was obviously frustrated by her son’s seeming unwillingness to answer her question. In all probability, the little boy did answer the question as truthfully as he could. In my experience, although we are aware of our conscious intentions, we are unaware of our unconscious intentions. Given that 90% of what we do is driven by our unconscious, why is it that the question of “Why” Is such a popular one? (Pun intended.)

I propose that we ask “Why” of others in an attempt to gain some sense of control. We attempt to satisfy our frustration due to not knowing “Why” for ourselves. As a result, we learn early in life that we better have a good answer in response to the question of “Why.” Little did the boy’s mother realize her role in programming her son to insure he will be able to answer the “Why” question in the future.

Questions are a powerful thing. Our minds will answer any question we repeatedly ask of it; even if it has to make up the answer. In response to feeling pressured to answer the “why” question, the left hemisphere of our brain will concoct a plausible explanation for what we do, even though in most cases, we don’t consciously know why we do what we do.

Joe, known as the “Man with Two Brains,” was sitting in front of a computer in a lab at Dartmouth College. On the screen, the word “Music” was flashed so that it could only be seen by Joe’s left eye; the left eye sends the image to the right hemisphere of Joe’s brain. Simultaneously, the word “Bell” is flashed so that it can only be seen by Joe’s right eye; the right eye sends the word to Joe’s left hemisphere. In Joe’s case, that’s where each word will stay. Unlike a “normal” brain, the right and left hemispheres of Joe’s brain do not communicate with each other due to surgery performed to alleviate Joe’s epileptic seizures.

This scene is from a documentary narrated by Alan Alda and produced by Scientific American entitled “Severed Corpus Callosum.” It explores research into the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Dr. Mike Gazzaniga at Dartmouth College conducted this research.

As Alan narrates, Joe is asked what word he saw. He chooses “music;” the word that was flashed to his right brain. When asked why he chose the word “music” he answers, “bell;” the word that was flashed to his left-brain. Alan Alda explains that he gives “bell” as the reason even while being shown pictures of other more musically related items. This test was used to determine that the right hemisphere of the brain is the conscious decision maker. The left hemisphere of the brain is the creator of the explanation of “why.”

Alan Alda goes onto explain that when asked why, Joe’s left brain “concocts” a plausible explanation using the word “bell.” In other words, not knowing why he chose music, his left brain made up the reason based on the word it was shown. The left-brain’s propensity to answer the question “Why” is problematic even when we give an answer that is true. The reason?—Our minds will go to great lengths to come up with an answer to any question it is asked. Therefor we should take care in choosing which questions we ask. Let’s take a look at an example of this.

We just sat down for a weekly coaching session. Dave, a rising star in a Fortune 50 Corporation was a bit frazzled, “I need you to help me come up with a good story to justify last month’s numbers.” I looked at Dave and asked, “What’s going on? What prompted this?” Dave answered, “In two days we have our monthly call with the president. He’ll ask why we missed last month’s numbers. If we don’t have a good story to explain it, we will be in trouble.”

I wish I could say this was unusual. I am amazed at the amount of time and energy I see being spent on answering the question, “Why did or didn’t this happen?” Here was a critical senior leader in the division expending energy to “concoct” a good explanation for the prior month’s performance. This is energy he could be putting into ensuring the current and future months’ performances are where they need to be!

As a consultant and coach, one of the most common questions I hear is, “why?” Why did you do this? Why didn’t you do that? Why did you miss your quota? Why did you go over budget? “Why” is the most asked question, yet, it does little for us. In truth, it’s a distraction at best and keeps us from realizing our true potential at worst. Let’s take a look at the unintended side effects of this question.

One self-limiting tactic used by our minds is to become stuck on a past event. Often, when something doesn’t go our way, we relive the event over and over in our minds. This usually involves asking a lot of “why” questions. This habit wastes our energy; we are focused on something we can do nothing about. This is energy that could serve us well if we only directed it to the right place– the present. We are much better off when we are focused on what we can and will do, now, to create the future we desire than when we are focusing on the unchangeable past.

Another challenge arises from the rationalization the question of “why” promotes. As we discussed earlier, our brain concocts a plausible explanation to explain “why.” Plausible it may be. True? —Hardly. Not only do we concoct the reason, we compound the damage. To prevent our experiencing any sense of Cognitive Dissonance, we come to believe our own explanation. Thereby, we begin to create a mental environment where our past becomes “justified” in our minds. We believe our own concoctions; we use them to justify the existence of the condition we don’t want! The question “why” can have the effect of reinforcing the very condition it is intended to alleviate.

Our mind will give us answers to the questions others or we ask of it—even if it has to concoct these answers. This leads us to a very important decision. What answers do we want? Answers that reinforce the very thing that we wish to alleviate. Or, do we want answers that empower us to realize what we desire? The choice is ours.

If we wish to change our lives and the lives of the people around us for the better, we can start by changing the questions we ask. Consider the switch from: Why can’t I achieve this? Or. Why didn’t you do this? To: What can I do to achieve this? Or. What can you do differently in the future? In my experience, I have found these questions to be powerful tools for gathering power in my own life. These questions have the effect of focusing my and others’ attention to the very thing that will create the desired future—The “what” we can do.

I realize some of you are probably thinking: “Yeah, but I need to understand the why to know how to move forward.” I agree; understanding a person’s perception of the “why” can be useful. It provides understanding of where this person believes he or she is in relation to what is trying to be achieved. What I’m saying is, far too much energy and attention go into asking “why.” This energy will produce much greater results when it is focused on what others— or, we can do now to create the desired result. Unless we are dealing with someone with the willingness to do the intense inner work necessary to uncover true motivations, we are better off moving from the “why” to the “what can you do…”

I remember something I heard many years ago, “Where attention goes, energy flows.” Where do we want our energy to flow, to the unchangeable past— or to the potential of the future? The answer to this question may just hold the secret to our future success. Ask why something can’t be or wasn’t done; we’ll get an answer. Ask what can be done to achieve our desires; we’ll get an answer. Which answer serves us best?

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