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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
Like it? Order the book:
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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.

Some whys => whats you can use.
Notice two things about these reframes: they rephrase the question as a what and that what question asks for process, steps, or backstory.
  • “Why did you sign up today?” => “What led you to sign up today?”
  • “Why do you need [what your product/service helps people do]?” => “What’s the story behind your need for [what your product/service helps people do]?”
  • [if they’re requesting a feature] “Why do you need [that]?” => “Can you walk me through what prompts you to say that?”
  • “Why did you cancel [product]?” => “What led you to cancel [product]?”
  • “Why did you give us a 1 out of 10 rating on our survey?” => “What’s behind the 1 rating you gave us on our survey?”
You can even use this in your personal life.
One of my favorite parenting experts, Caley Kukla, suggests reframing questions as “what’s your plan?” It reframes a question that might come across as nagging into a problem that can be solved. It also removes the judgment of a why and lets the child (or spouse, or roommate) be part of creating the solution.
For example, “Why isn’t your room clean yet?” => “We need to leave in ten minutes. What’s your plan for cleaning your room?” (This reframing also borrows the “state a fact” approach of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, which is worth reading even if you don’t have kids.)
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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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