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Dec 29

Communication Tip: Avoid The Word “Why”

Asking “Why” Can Increase Conflict

When a situation or relationship is already somewhat stressful, it is a good idea to simply avoid “why” questions altogether.

There are certain words used in everyday communication that can contribute to increased conflict, even when that is the last thing needed or desired.  One of these is the word “why” either used alone or as part of a larger question.

It can seem innocuous, but asking someone “why” an action was taken, a decision made, or a feeling felt can be asking for a justification or defensive response.

Being asked “Why?” often triggers a person to feel threatened or attacked – as if the validity of actions, decisions, or feelings are being questioned.   A person’s initial reaction to the question can be one of responding to an attack on one’s sense of self, as opposed to an assumption that the question is simply a quest for a better understanding of what occurred.  As a result of a single question, a simple conversation can become a knockdown-drag-out fight.

Simple Question, or Accusation?

Using the word “why” is one of the most common means of gathering additional information.  Most often the use of this word is innocent, simply an effort to get additional information or to gain understanding.  We use this word without thinking. Focusing on the answer not the question.  However even the most innocent question, phrased with as “Why did you…?”, often elicits an automatic defensive response.

For most, a question posed with the word “why” results in a sense (even a slight one) that one must justify or defend an action or decision. It can subconsciously be experienced as an accusation versus a simple innocent question.  Once this happens the person feels questioned and must that they must defend themselves.  The dynamic of the interaction changes – typically for the worse.

Innocent conversations can become heated angry exchanges full of misunderstanding.  This does not mean that questions posed using “why” should never be used; it does, however, advise caution in certain circumstances.

Phrasing questions with words other than “why” can provide the same information without the defensive response.  As an added bonus, being more purposeful in the wording of questions will slow down the conversation and lessen the likelihood of things spiraling out of control.

What to do: Focus on the purpose and word your question with that in mind.

  • “Why do you want to meet with me?”, is better worded “What are items you wish to discuss?”
  • “Why do you want the kids on the 7th?”, is better worded “Is there a particular reason you want the kids on the 7th?”

Although this seems to be a small change, it can drastically impact the level of conflict in a conversation and is well worth a try.

Life can be complicated and messy, and rarely progresses in a straight line.  PeoplePsych is a Chicago-based psychotherapy group that treats adults seeking profound change in their lives.  We provide services that affirm the dignity, worth, and value of all individuals. We strive to create a safe non-judgemental space for clients to explore the issues that bring them. To connect with one of our therapists, please contact our Clinical Coordinator at (312) 252-5252 or

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