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September 10, 2014

Why great learners seldom use why

Question-mark“Why” is one of the first learning questions kids ask. I know as a young child my parents struggled to retain babysitters for me as I peppered them with Why questions for hours as I was (and still am) very curious about the world and using Why questions was my entry ticket to knowledge.

Parents sometimes find it hard to answer the why questions of a child; questions such as, “Why do people die?” And, “Why isn’t mommy and daddy together?” and, “Why do people go to war?” or even “Why are carrots orange?”

These types of questions often create awkward pauses and deep breathes, occasionally panic. How do you answer such complexity disguised as simplicity?

More recently parenting experts such as Dr Alan Greene provide helpful hints to handling why questions from a child. When you hear a child ask a why question, according to Dr Greene what they are actuality saying is, “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?

Many kids are using the Why question ineffectively, they hope for one type of answer… and then get another. Kids are not the only group that does this, many adults make the same type of mistake when trying to learn.

When it comes to learning, the most common why question used is the why of causation – Why did this happen? Why did I do that? Why did I get this result?

And here-in lies the trap. The why of causation scans the conscious mind and mental decision tree to try to find an answer, and if it can’t find one, it either makes its best assumption or the mind gets stuck in a frustrating loop of “I don’t know.”  If you make a conscious choice, this question can be answered quite easily, however if it wasn’t a conscious choice the brain struggles to answer the question.

Unfortunately almost all mistakes aren’t made consciously,  This means that using the why question to try to learn more about a mistake is not going to work well. The brain may struggle to find an answer, make something up that is not 100% accurate or get stuck.

Sports coaches and well-meaning parents often fall into this Why trap, they ask questions such as, “Why did you drop the ball?”, ”Why did you play that shot?”, “Why didn’t you kick it out?”or,  “Why did you miss the goal?”

What is a better solution.

For quite some time in the fields of therapy, NLP and coaching using Why questions for reflection and learning have been strongly discouraged by certain training modalities. Instead of using Why questions, using What questions are recommend.

Using the What question creates an opportunity to step back into the experience and slow it down to find the key pieces of information that can be used to draw an accurate conclusion which will probably lead to powerful learning’s. Interestingly success can also often be the result of an unconscious process, so what questions can be very powerful here too. “What happened that I was at my best today? What happened that we got the win? What happened that I was so ready to take the kick?”

What is the method to using powerful what questions?

1. Chose one from the following “What” questions: “What is this about?  What was going on for me that X happened? What was my criteria for making that decision? ” Use this one What question instead of the Why question you might have normally used.

2. Slow yourself down, step back into your internal movie of your mind, focus on what was happening on the outside when the event happened that you wanted to learn more about,then focus on what was happening on the inside (of yourself). Ask yourself the What question you chose. If relevant ask yourself,”When did this mistake start, or when did this success start?”

3 Be patient with the answer, it may take 30 seconds or more. Your brain is going deep into your unconscious mind to find and convert your question into snippets your brain can start to draw conclusions from.

4 If you don’t get any answer for a while, check to see you are both relaxed and “in the moment” that you wanted to learn about – return to the internal movie in your mind. Then try a more specific question. eg, “What happened for me in that moment that I made that mistake?”