Several years ago I tried to get a co-worker to share some feedback about my performance, but he avoided it like the plague. I now realize that I made the whole process too risky for him. To find out how others see us, we need to ask simple, frequent questions that allow them to help us. "Why" and "how" can be too confusing and emotionally charged. "What" questions are easier to answer and more likely to produce information we can use.
HBR: What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It), 2018-Jan-4 by Tasha Eurich
My research team scoured hundreds of pages of interview transcripts with highly self-aware people to see if they approached introspection differently. Indeed, there was a clear pattern: Although the word “why” appeared fewer than 150 times, the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times.
Therefore, to increase productive self-insight and decrease unproductive rumination, we should ask what, not why. “What” questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.
For example, consider Jose, an entertainment industry veteran we interviewed, who hated his job. Where many would have gotten stuck thinking “Why do I feel so terrible?,” he asked, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” He realized that he’d never be happy in that career, and it gave him the courage to pursue a new and far more fulfilling one in wealth management.
Similarly, Robin, a customer service leader who was new to her job, needed to understand a piece of negative feedback she’d gotten from an employee. Instead of asking “Why did you say this about me?,” Robin inquired, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” This helped them move to solutions rather than focusing on the unproductive patterns of the past.