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WHY before WHAT

By Stephan Moons

There is a particular age at which children respond to almost every request or command with WHY.


Tidy your room.
- Why?

Time to go to bed.
- Why?

Can you put all your toys in the toy box?
- Why?


It may be the manifestation of their evolving unique personality - I have got a will of my own and can shape reality - or simply curiosity.

Why is an intelligent question. It expresses the desire for understanding. This understanding drive is an important motivator in any learning process.
And we never stop learning.

Understanding also plays an important role in influencing others.
Everyone is familiar with the statement Give me one good reason why I should...

Until that one good reason is presented by you, the sender, there is no acceptance by the receiver!

In all communications where influence plays an important role WHY is crucial:
sales, coaching, teaching, presenting...
But not just any WHY...
Only the WHY relevant to the other will do the trick and create engagement that may lead to acceptance and desired behaviour.​

I understand that your shortness of breath is really making your life difficult. Playing your favourite sport, tennis, is no longer an option, and you really want to become fit again so that you can actively spend time with your grandchildren. Is this WHY you are here?

- That's basically it.
I suggest that we investigate WHAT you can do in order to get there. Is that OK with you?
- Fine with me. I really want this!

If you want to change your customer/patient/student/coachee, first deal with WHY and then with WHAT. The other way around may produce something like:

I am going to prescribe you an inhaler that you need to use twice a day!

No patient's involvement. Just sit, listen and obey! No connection with the patient's internal driving force.
Everyone feels that the first approach is far more likely to result in a compliant patient.  

However, during training sessions about influence and change I find that the students' focus is quite often on WHAT.
WHAT holds the obvious solution for the sender. On the other hand WHY holds the beneficial reasons for the receiver: the magic key to change.

There are many reasons why the sender is so eager to focus on the WHAT:

  • Strong urge to get a result.
  • Need to show expertise.
  • Wanting to please the other.
  • Impatience. Let's just get it over with. 
  • It's plain logic: he will understand and follow my advice.

Starting with the receiver's WHY may appear more time-consuming: in order to discover it empathy and appropriate questions are required.

Once you get skilled at it, you will actually save time.

As the receiver becomes deeper and faster engaged there will be no more need for re-explaining the seemingly obvious. Swift adoption of effective behaviour will save time and energy, and avoid negative results.

So, as a sender who are you? A WHAT or a WHY?

And honestly, as a receiver what do YOU need when confronted with emerging change: WHAT or WHY?


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