The Art of Asking Why
by Valerie Alvarado
USC Executive Master of Leadership
It seems like a simple question – why? We ask it every day. But how often do we take the time to fully answer the question as a means to understand purpose? Upon meeting someone new, we typically encounter the question, “What do you do?” Most of us have a prepared, canned response to this question, which is usually an abbreviated version of our job description, but what does that really say about why we do what we do? And more importantly, what does that say about our values?
I can easily tell you what I do and how I do it, and until recently, I thought I could tell you why I do it as well. What I learned is that you must ask why five times to get to the source. Laree Kiely, President of The Kiely Group, introduced the exercise of asking why five times when she posed the question, “Why do you exist?” My first two answers were superficial. My third answer required some thought. My fourth answer had me stumped, and my fifth answer required serious self-reflection and soul searching. When I finally got to the source of why I exist, my entire perspective on work, family and life changed.
It is clear that our values are at the core of why we exist. Once we understand our values we can understand the why in our lives. Why did I choose my profession? Why did I choose my spouse? Why did I choose my cause? The why doesn’t change even when everything else does. Understanding why we exist will endure the multitude of changes we’ll experience in our lifetime. Have you ever changed jobs? Most of us have. Chances are what you do in your new job is different than what you did in your former job, but why you do it remains the same. Your core values don’t change.
As leaders, we are responsible for creating environments where asking why is encouraged. Leaders themselves should ask why of others to provoke critical thinking. Finding answers in common to the question why creates unity and loyalty. This is why we gather in great numbers at church on Sunday, why we work in an organization with people who are aligned with our values, and why we spend our precious free time with the people we choose.
The art of asking why lies in the curiosity factor. It is through curiosity that we begin to dig past superficial answers to arrive at a deeper meaning – a clearer picture. When we allow our uninhibited curiosity to guide us, we ask the right questions until our curiosity is satisfied. It is important not to let the fear of asking foolish questions interfere. If done right, you’ll uncover incredible insight into your core values.