Why Ask Why?

Frequently I run into life coaching clients who desperately dig to understand why they do or don’t do certain things.

They can see that these things aren’t working well so they reason, that if they understood their motivation, then they would cease repeating the wayward behavior.

Yet knowing why you persist in a behavior that’s not good for you won’t necessarily stop you from doing it.

I’ve coached lots of folks who did manage to understand that why and they still kept right on digging. They saw the real reason but didn’t accept it as the truth that it was.

Often things look too simple to be true. But they are.

So when faced with a recurring challenge it’s often fruitless to understand why. Why? Why is it fruitless?

Because the quest isn’t worth the prize. It often costs too much in expended energy for it to be worthwhile.

Often the quest for why will lead to a whole series of downward spiraling questions. Why am I like this? What’s wrong with me? Why is this happening to me? Why?

The quest for why often turns your attention and energy to more of what you don’t want.

The way to get what you want is to turn your attention and energy on what you want. Light that up!

So the next time you’re tempted to ask why, instead ask; what do I really want? Then ask, what would be likely to get me what I want? What could I do now to move just a little closer to what I want?

Then do that thing. You’ll be happier and much more productive.


  1. Good point. I often get caught up in the Why of it. Sometimes it’s important to know Why–such as, it’s good to know the Why of your business or passion.

    But you are correct that when one focuses on the Why of a bad habit or thought pattern, it only expands awareness of and focus upon that pattern.

    Thanks for the reminder. I’m off to do as you’ve suggested in the last three sentences.

  2. Evelyn Lim says:

    I like what you are proposing: switch focus to what we can do, rather than asking ourselves unhelpful questions. The improved line of questioning puts us out of our dramas and power back into our hands. Thumbs up!

  3. I’ve coached lots of folks who did manage to understand that why and they still kept right on digging. They saw the real reason but didn’t accept it as the truth that it was.

    IMHO, that last sentence is why some people get stuck asking ‘why?’ So, for me, it’s not the asking ‘why?’ that is the problem. Rather, it is not accepting the answer that is the problem.

  4. Jenn Zuniga says:

    I’ll be there! 😉

  5. JB – I’m glad you can so clearly see this wisdom. I find that once we are aware of this inquiry, it becomes natural to stop doing it.

    Suzanne – That works for those who do get the right answer. Unfortunately not everyone does. It requires much discernment. So I find that it’s much easier to just not go there at all.

    Evelyn – Thank you. Life really is all about making good choices repeatedly and that comes form where we focus our inquiries.

  6. Love it, Tom! We can easily indulge ourselves in fruitless mental masturbation with the word “Why?” rather than just getting on with CHANGE.

    Rather than asking “why?” I like to go with seeing the reality of what IS. And then, as you pointed out, asking myself what I want instead.


  7. Hi Tom,

    It is veritable that when we begin with the word why we go on to ask more questions that begin with when, what, where who, etc. I have frequently said why ask why. If you do not honestly want to understand something you will ask why while looking for an explanation (so you will have a justification.). We have to ask why in search for understanding before we know what we need to change.

  8. Andrea – yes the reality of what is is an excellent jumping off place to d see what the best change might be. In fact it’s the only sane jumping off place.

    Jenn – I assume you mean the phone class on delaying no more. It will be a pleasure to have you there.

    Sandra – Well put. Any explanation can become a justification or a rationalization. I’m not against all understanding of course. many beliefs need to be investigated. But I find asking Byron Katie’s second question to be better than why. She asks, can I absolutely know that this is true?

  9. I love this, Tom. It reminds me of something Julio Olalla, founder of The Newfield Network said during one of the graduate coaching program seminars: “What’s wrong with me?” is not a question; it’s a declaration. That declaration points to a past that cannot be changed and that limits the future.

    “What do i want?” is a question and a declaration pointing toward the possible future.

  10. I’m a fan of getting my mental model in place so that I have something to aim for. It seems like if I know what good looks like, the rest can follow (or at least I can tune and tailor it along the way.)


  11. I’ve never thought about how “why” can sometimes be an obstacle to what you want. I ask myself why often, sometimes it works against me, sometimes it helps me. But then again I’m a questioner and a planner.

    The simplest answer. Why? Because.

  12. Molly – I love listening to Julio Olalla. He has such a wonderfully refreshing perspective. Thanks for this. It is a declaration and one that we certainly do not want to empower through repetition. Yet that’s what these kind of fruitless inquiries do.

    J.D. – That’s a sound strategy. Set the mindset and the objective first and go from there.

    Lauren – Welcome! You can still inquire and plan. In fact when things are going well, why is a wonderful inquiry. But it pays to inquire only when we actually can recognize the progress in the inquiry. This does not mean that we can’t live with a really good how or what question and let the answer bubble up over time.

  13. Pam Komarnicki says:

    It’s so funny that I ran across this post, since this is the first time I’ve read your blog. I wrote about this a couple of days ago (my CommentLuv link).

    It’s important to make sure that you’re asking yourself the right questions, in order to get answers that will help rather than hurt you.

  14. Pam – Welcome. Indeed we are on the same constructive wave length. I’ll hop on over and check put your post.

  15. Chris Edgar says:

    Hi Tom — I often notice that, when people ask “why is this or that happening,” what they’re really doing is complaining about what’s happening, and they aren’t really interested in the answer to the question. It’s like when parents sometimes ask their children “why are you doing that?” what they really mean is “I don’t like what you’re doing.” I find it’s a relief when I admit that what’s actually going on is that I don’t like the situation, and I want something else.

  16. Hi Chris – Yes indeed. It really isn’t an inquiry at that point. It is more like a complaint that they really don’t want to dig into. They may even be afraid of the investigation. As you know most folks hang just on the surface of true transformation. If they really saw the why then they would have to change. Yes the relief of true realization is astounding. Thank you.

  17. I always ask why for so many things especially those that really bother me. I want to get a justification why things are like that, etc., etc. When I graduated in college, I just proved that it isn’t always like that. Life is not like an exam with a definite answer right after your exam. All answers are meant to be discovered in due time. You need to reflect on it while you’re moving forward with your life.

  18. Hi Lynn – Welcome! Yes that is a tough question when things aren’t working. You can still get to the bottom with a different inquiry. Try this one. “What would a person in this situation have had to of believed in order to create it?” That will allow you to surface and investigate the core belief.

  19. Samantha Dermot says:

    That’s the difficult part for me. Forgetting about the why and simply focus on my plans. I ended up procrastinating and the last thing I find out is I’m running out of time to achieve my goals.

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