Imagine precious little three year old Suzie Darling innocently asking “Why?” to whatever her mother says. At that age it’s simply a request for information, however tiresome it might be for her parents. Little does Suzie know that in a few years that “Why?” is going to be turned around on her with a vengeance.
Time passes. Suzie Darling’s eight years old, and now it’s Mom’s turn to ask “Why?”.
“Why didn’t you clean up your room after school, like I told you to do?”
Suddenly that innocent little “Why?” has acquired a sharp edge of accusation, and we all remember how just how little good an honest “I don’t know” will do as an answer.
So some years later Suzie’s all grown up. She married and has a good job. And, what happens when Joe asks her “Why” she filled out the paperwork for the new A-1 widgets that way? She automatically gets a tiny bit defensive.
Joe was merely curious, and with his innocent question he unknowingly set off an old response. Even though Suzie “knows” it’s a simple request for information, lingering traces of the eight year old’s feelings from Mom’s “why’s?” resonate to this day.
So how can Joe safely satisfy his curiosity? Simply by rephrasing. If he had asked, “What was the purpose of cross filing the A-1 widgets with the crumpet displacers on page 2?”, Suzie would have happily supplied him with her reasons, and both would have felt good about their conversation.
Human minds make associations. Flags remind us of Mom, and apple pie because they’ve been mentioned together so many times. And, a great many seemingly innocent words can inadvertently evoke none too desirable feelings at times.
So now that you’ve taken the first step, and become aware that eliminating “why” questions can promote more positive responses from simple requests for information, what are you going to do? True, putting your new knowledge into practice will take a little effort, but surely by now you can imagine the rewards vividly enough to be motivated to take action.
Curious about other hot button words? How about the “right/wrong” and “good/bad” concepts? Imagine if your boss said, “That doesn’t really fit what we need here. Go ahead and move the eggs in the large cartons.” Instead of, “That’s all wrong. Put the eggs in the large cartons.” Which of those two would make you feel the best? Which of those two would motivate you to do your best job for the boss?
In becoming aware of the power of words like “why”, you can begin to appreciate the value of choosing words with care. By now, it’s become easier to appreciate how a little verbal precision can make a decided difference in the relationships that we care most about.
The good news is, that after a little effort, new speaking habits can be established, and we begin to speak with an increasingly easy and automatic precision.