This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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I’m nearing the end stages of preparing Deploy Empathy for publishing.
(Quick note: I’m aiming to publish the ebook and print version in July, and you can grab a pre-order copy
of the PDF now. The audiobook will follow in a few months and will be pre-launched as a private podcast.)
The book is in final editing right now, and one of my subject matter expert editors reminded me of a small but hugely impactful word swap.
Whenever you want to ask a why question, rephrase it as a what question.
Why questions are hard to answer because they ask for causality. It requires the other person to come up with reasons for why they did something—either call them from their memory, or come up with them on the spot. Our decisions don’t always have clear-cut causality, yet we as humans are tempted to create linear, seemingly-logical narratives to explain our behavior and make ourselves look smart and intentional.
Instead, rephrase why questions as a what question. A what question gives the person more space for the jumble of previous actions that may have led to the subsequent action. A why question implicitly judges someone if they don’t have clear-cut causality, yet a what question leaves space for messiness.
A what question is both easier to answer and it leads to better results because it doesn’t require someone to create a simple narrative out of complexity. And, in the process of explaining the what, the causality often comes out.