Ask ‘what’ not ‘why’ in boosting career

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imageContributing blogger John Long is a professional career coach and consultant in Atlanta who founded Two Roads Resources. He blogs at Atlanta Career Coach.

Q: I’m putting together a plan to move up the ladder at work and be viewed as someone ready to take on more complex projects. But I keep hitting brick walls. Why can’t I seem to make any real progress?

A: If you’re feeling boxed-in or stuck, you probably need to look at the process a bit differently and with more objectivity. A simple but often powerful way to make a positive change in your perspective is asking different questions. Your current questions might go something like this:

“Why is this happening to me?”
“Why is this happening now?”
“Why isn’t my plan working?”
“Why can’t I reach my goal?”
“Why am I feeling this way?”

“Why?” is one of the first questions we learn to ask as children. As a child I can remember watching movies with my family, who would inevitably become quite irritated with my barrage of “why” questions. Even today friends and family will frown when I ask too many questions.

We ask “why” questions because we want to understand or reconcile a situation. But is the question being driven by a need to learn and grow or is it an emotional response?

I sometimes refer to a “why” question as the “Victim’s” question, as in “Why me?” This may be good for reflection, but its focus is on the past or present. But we no longer have an opportunity to change the past or present. Not even Cher’s plastic surgeons can truly turn back time.

Consider asking “what” rather than “why.” In the coaching world, we refer to “what” questions as wisdom access questions. WAQs take you beyond information gathering to concentrate on outcomes and solutions.

With a goal in mind, you can then do the research necessary to make informed decisions that can propel you forward. And the future is where positive change and goals reside. Here are some examples of essential, compelling “what” questions:

“What needs to change?”
“What’s blocking my path?”
“What negative patterns am I repeating (such as job hopping)?”
“What do I need to demonstrate to be seen as a leader?”
“What do I need to learn and accomplish?”

Think of a common scenario, such as a conflict with your boss. You might ask questions including, “Why doesn’t my boss like me,” “Why does my boss treat me this way” or even “Why is my boss such an ass?”

These are good for bitching and whining. But the fundamental problem with these questions is that they have much more to do with the other person and their behavior than with you.

You can’t spin your wheels trying to figure out the other person’s thoughts and motives. So try asking something like, “What can I do this week to improve my relationship with my boss?” A “what” question allows you to be proactive and seek out a solution.

The next time you’re feeling stuck or need to view life a bit differently, try asking “what?” rather than “why?” I also recommend “now what?” You can also review more resources from life coach Laura Berman Fortgang.


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