Sunday, September 1, 2013

When Is A Question Not A Question?

Mother to child: “Why did you shove a marble up your nose?”
Boss to employee: “Why are you late?”
Husband to wife: “Why are you always trying to make me mad?”
Wife to husband: “Why are you so insensitive?”

How many times have you heard a similar question and thought to yourself
“Are they really expecting an intelligent answer?”
 The truth is that these are not really questions – they are indirect accusations.

In the counseling room we do our best to try to keep couples from communicating in this way. The “why” questions invariably leads to predictable attack and defend exchanges. It might be considered a passive-aggressive way of blaming. Why do I say passive-aggressive? Because when challenged, the inquisitor can come back with the retort “I was only asking a simple question.” Sure bet.

This habit of asking “why” is so ingrained in most people that it is difficult to change, but it is so destructive to good communication that it is worth the effort to work on minimizing its use. I had one wife tell me (in front of her husband) “If I drop the word “why” from my vocabulary I won’t know how to start a conversation with him.”

What is the solution here?

  • Be direct. Express your feelings directly in a non-blaming manner.
  “I felt hurt when you forgot my birthday?” as opposed to “Why did you forget my birthday?”
“Would you close the front door, please,” rather than “Why didn’t you close the front door?”
  • Ask for what you need.
 “I need you to be more aware of the clock and show up on time for work.”
 Amazingly, some people don’t always fully understand what you want unless you spell it out for them.

  • Teach (children, not spouses).
 “That marble was hard to remove and probably felt really uncomfortable. It’s good to remember that the next time an idea like that pops in your head.”

I would challenge you to really think about this and see if you can go a whole week without asking the question “why” (in this relational context). I know that it can be really frustrating in the moment when you are upset, but surrendering your right to act offensively will yield better results in the long run. When the goal is spiritual maturity, the path may be more difficult, but the benefits outweigh the cost. 
 Eph. 4:15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 


  1. Dave, what's your take for how someone can respond to someone who asks the 'why' question a lot without realizing it's blaming?

    1. My best answer would be to use a sandwich technique with the person: affirmation, request, affirmation.

      Ex: "I know you are not intending to blame me,(affirmation) but when you ask a lot of 'why' questions, it feels that way to me. I would prefer that you ask me things more directly or express disappointments in a different way(request). I know you care about us, and so do I and that's why I'm bringing it up(affirmation)."

      If the person is open you could even share the blog post and say that's how you got to thinking about it. Hope that helps!