When was the Last Time You Asked “Why”?

Many moons ago, my husband, Bret, and I were running through a list of errands when we noticed that several of them intersected, prompting one of us to suggest, “Let’s kill two birds with one stone.”

Our (then) very young daughter immediately leveled her gaze upon us and demanded, “Why do we have to kill birds?” (Trust me, there’s nothing like the glare of a child who thinks you might be a cold-blooded avian-killer to stop you in your tracks.)


Bret and I cracked up laughing because her question was so extraordinarily funny and touching–and perfectly justified. Why would we kill birds?

Here’s what I especially love so very, very much about her question: the way it showed her complete lack of ego and fear. She overheard something we said; it made no sense to her; and with complete spontaneity, she asked “why?” She didn’t stop to worry that she should know the answer, or that we would think she was stupid, or like or love her any less. She simply asked the obvious.

Now, here’s my question for you. When was the last time you let go of your ego and fear and simply asked, “why”? I know it can be hard to do something so basic, and we all have times when we decide (to paraphrase Mark Twain) that it’s better to keep our mouths shut and appear stupid than to open them and remove all doubt–but that attitude serves no one well. When we find the courage and evince the curiosity to ask “why” about things we don’t know or understand, everyone wins.

Asking questions

  • allows us to understand the reasons (to what purpose? toward what end?) we do something
  • gives us a chance to make predictions, consider alternative strategies, and change our thinking about or slant on a problem or task before actually testing methods or approaches
  • lets us make connections based on things we already know
  • enables us to understand unfamiliar terms, concepts, and acronyms
  • reminds us to review important information and build consensus

How we frame and ask our questions is just as important as (if not more so than) why we need to ask them. Consider these traps we fall into, and some ways to avoid them.

Leading The Witness. We ask questions that assume particular answers—that is, we think we already know the answers, and simply want people to confirm them.

Example: “Don’t you think this data is useless, and that we should ditch this project?”

We must instead ask questions that are objective, direct, and free of preconceived answers—that leave room for discussion, exploration, options.

Example: “What can you tell me about this data set? What can we do to test its validity and usefulness?”

Either/Or Scenarios. Instead of asking questions, we propose solutions disguised as questions.

Example: “Should we just scrap this dashboard and rework the entire thing, or should we send it out, and hope that no one notices that it doesn’t make any sense?”

Most people will choose one answer or the other–but what if there’s a better option that hasn’t been proposed?

Phrasing the question like this promotes exploration. “This dashboard has numerous flaws. What do you think we should do?”

Rather than offering either|or choices, simply state the problem. Then ask, “What do you think?” Or, “what would you do? How should we handle this?” Then be still, and let people reflect–don’t rush to fill the silence.

Failure to Clarify. As previously noted, we are often afraid (and yes, sometimes too indifferent, tired, or–let’s be honest–lazy) to ask the questions that provide clarity. But we need to ask them, and doing so is not really very hard.

Example: “I don’t have much experience with this or how it works. How would you explain it to me?”

“That sounds good. Let me make sure I didn’t miss anything. Can you walk me through it one more time?”

“Here is what I understand; is that correct?”

The bottom line: don’t pretend you understand something when you don’t. Instead, learn to ask questions that will help you create better work, and provide the reports and dashboards that all stakeholders need to make informed health and healthcare decisions. (As an added bonus, I guarantee your job-satisfaction and performance evaluations will improve as well!)

P.S. Did you find yourself asking where the idiom “kill two birds with one stone” comes from? Here’s a story that holds a possible explanation. In Greek mythology, Icarus and his son Daedalus are being held in a high tower by King Minos of Crete. All they can see are high walls around and large birds overhead, circling as they await the death of their future dinner. Daedalus figures out how to throw stones at the birds–whose wings he hopes to use to enable the pair to fly out of their prison–then bring down a second with the ricochet, thus killing two birds with one stone. The rest is history.

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