Wallowing In Why

“Why?” is a great question…unless you’re wallowing in it. By wallowing I mean, you’re using “why” to avoid “how.”

In his book, Playing Ball On Running Water (opens in a new link), David Reynolds said that one of the differences between the East’s and West’s psychotherapy practices is that the West spends time trying to determine why someone does what they do. In the East, they simply help the person develop new behaviors.

All too often we use the pursuit of why to delay the identification of how. More often than not this occurs subconsciously, we have a legitimate interest in discovering why. This becomes a problem when we allow our pursuit of why to become a way of avoiding the real question “How are we going to overcome what we’re facing?” This avoidance becomes procrastination, again often subconsciously.

Overcoming why

My intent is not to get you to stop asking “Why?” It’s a good question…one that bears asking. We can learn a lot from why. But why is not always readily available, nor is it essential for you to get what you desire.

I know from personal experience, as well as work with clients, that why isn’t easily discovered, in highly-emotional situations. Emotions cloud our thinking, create bias which limits our ability to see the reason why we’re behaving as we are. It’s the reason why our pursuit of why should have a time limit.

Today, I don’t spend any time trying to determine why. I’ve adopted the attitude of the East’s psychotherapists and immediately go to “How can I change what I don’t like?” For some of you that may be too stark a transition so I’m going to suggest that you limit the time to one week. Here’s the process I’m recommending for you:

  • Acknowledge that you’re not happy with the result you’re getting whether you’re not as popular as you’d like, your business isn’t as profitable as you want it to be, you’re not as close to your kids as you’d like to be or whatever it is that robs you of joy.
  • Ask yourself “Why is this happening? What am I doing that creates this result?” These questions plant in your subconscious mind a desire for answers. The second question also directs your subconscious mind’s focus onto your behaviors rather than the behaviors of those with whom you interact. Until we understand our contribution to the problem and determine how we’re going to change our behaviors, we have little hope of changing others’ behaviors.
  • Ask these questions several times during the day, especially just prior to going to bed. Your subconscious mind tends to respond when your conscious mind isn’t occupied with a task.
  • At the end of the week, shift your question to “How can I get [the result I desire]? If you haven’t gotten a response to the why questions at this point, you’re not likely to get them anytime soon.

This simple process enables you to satisfy your need to pursue why without significant delays to getting better results. Even if why doesn’t surface, you’ll find comfort in knowing that you tried. You’ll also feel good knowing that you’re not allowing the absence of why to deprive you of what you desire. Interestingly, people often abandon the pursuit of why before the week ends because their desire for a different result overwhelms their interest in why.

Over time you will, like me, realize that why isn’t essential; that it delays the gratification I seek.

For you

While understanding “why” we do what we do can be helpful, it isn’t essential to changing behaviors that aren’t serving us well. Indeed, using why questions as a tool for determining cause opens the door to a lot of speculation and little, if any, hard evidence with which to work. At least, that’s been my experience, personally and with clients.

I’m sure some of you are wondering “If I don’t understand ‘why,’ can I know that the ‘how’ will work?” All of life is an iterative process, one continuous experiment. We don’t know for sure until we try. That’s true whether we think we understand the why or not.

To some degree we are all Edisons. We try what we think will work, learn from it and adapt. In the end, we always prevail. Not because of the knowledge we possessed, not because of the clarity about why, but because we tried, learned, adapted and persevered.

For our kids

As all parents have discovered, kids love asking “Why?” Don’t discourage this behavior, they’re seeking understanding. It’s a trait I’ve retained throughout my 72 years and it serves me well…especially in those situations in which why doesn’t make sense.

But when the time is right, teach them that knowing why isn’t essential to getting results. Share with them the process outlined above. Then they too will avoid wallowing in why.

I love hearing your thoughts and experiences, please share your thoughts in a comment.

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2 Responses

  1. Bill Prenatt

    Dale, I wonder. Am I better off or worse off that I don’t think about WHY? Is something out of synch for me? What are your thoughts?

    • Dale Furtwengler

      Bill, as with all things in life the use of “why” is spectral and situational. Its usefulness depends on the situation you’re facing. The spectrum runs from “necessary” to “nice to know” to “irrelevant.” Asking why is a good starting point. As we seek the answer to why, we open the door to new and valuable insights. This is a good use of why.

      When why becomes problematic is when we consider “knowing why” a necessity for progress. Most learning occurs as a result of iterative processes. We try something and it doesn’t work. We try something else; it doesn’t work either. We continue the process until we find something that works. If we had waited until we understood why each attempt didn’t work, our progress would be slowed dramatically.

      It’s always good to ask why something didn’t work, or did work, so that we gain understanding. But when the answer to why doesn’t come readily, we don’t want it to postpone the progress we could make using an iterative process even though we don’t know why earlier attempts did or didn’t work.

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