The Power of Moving From “Why” to “How”

Questions have the power to direct conversation and action. Sometimes, getting new results in life is a matter of asking new questions.

I’m not a huge fan of Tony Robbins. But there is a passage from his book Awaken the Giant Within that intrigues me. It’s about the power of questions:

I asked people in my seminars, in airplanes, in meetings; I asked everyone I met, from CEOs in high-rises to homeless people on the street, trying to discover the questions that created their experience of day-to-day life. I realized that the main difference between the people who seemed to be successful—in any area!—and those who weren’t were that successful people asked better questions, and as a result, they got better answers.

This applies with special force to two particular kinds of questions—”why” questions and “how” questions.

I remember starting out as a freelance writer. The two questions that occupied my thinking during the first weeks were:

  •  Why did I ever think I could make a living by working for myself?
  • Why can’t I convince people to hire me?

Both questions begin with the word “why.” And, “why” questions evoke answers that begin with the word “because.” That’s simply the way our language and logic work.

Yet a search for “because” can easily degenerate into a search for excuses, including people to blame:

  • Q: Why did I ever think I could make a living by working for myself? A: Because that freelancer I talked to last year said things that totally misled me.
  • Q: Why don’t people hire me? A: Because they can tell right away that I’m inexperienced.

One path out of this trap lies in asking “how” questions. Questions that start with “how” tend to open up possibilities. These questions prompt a search for solutions rather than scapegoats:

  • “Why did I ever think I could make a living by working for myself?” becomes “How can I make a living by working for myself?”
  • “Why can’t I convince people to hire me?” becomes: “How can I convince people to hire me?”

How” questions orient us toward action that we can take right now. They shift our attention from problems to solutions. The result is a new way of interpreting any set of facts—and the capacity for a new level of response.

Those benefits come mainly from changing one word—“why” to “how.”

P. S. Another empowering question comes from blogger Michael Hyatt. It’s one that you can ask in response to any setback: What does this make possible?

Image by Marcus Ramberg, Flickr Creative Commons