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The question researchers should all stop asking

EVENTS & TRAINING: Curiosity is a fundamental trait of a great researcher.  Whether you are a qualie or a quant person, finding answers and solving puzzles and problems should be toward the top of the things that get you up in the morning. 

This curiosity and relentless focus can lead us to become infatuated with finding out the ‘why’.

And why shouldn’t we be? ‘Why’ is wonderful. Knowing the ‘why’ unlocks understanding which leads to opportunities for change and that can turn into business growth. Simon Sinek encourages us to Start with Why.

But ‘why’ can be dangerous. I was first warned of the trouble with ‘why’ when I attended moderator training at RIVA in suburban Washington, DC.  As I’ve grown beyond that initial moderator training to a deeper understanding of how to achieve empathy with someone, to understand how they are thinking or feeling, I’ve continued to see how asking ‘why’ can derail your journey to understanding before you really get underway.  That’s why I no longer ask ‘why’.

Why is ‘why’ bad for us?  Let’s go back to your childhood.  That time when you were 3 or 4 years old and you did something bad, like draw on the wall in marker.  What did your parent, guardian or caregiver ask you?  “Why?”  And there, on the spot, staring up at a disapproving face, you had to formulate an answer that could either get you into trouble if you acknowledged the truth, or made you feel kinda bad because you might tell a lie.  So maybe you cop out with the now-famous “I dunno”.

It continues when, let’s say you close the car door on your younger sister’s hand. Or you are late for school.  Ever get a bad grade?  There’s a tough ‘why’ question to answer. How about explaining to a police officer why you didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign? It even continues into adulthood.  Why didn’t you make the sale?  Why didn’t you follow our process?  Why? Why? Why?

The question ‘why’ never leads to a positive outcome. It’s posed to give someone who may or may not be in trouble the opportunity to defend themselves. It’s got the pressure of appearing before the court of judgment packed into a 3-letter word.

As I learned at RIVA, the question ‘why’ puts us on the defensive.  We have a lifetime of conditioning to make us feel that way.  I’ve come to realize it goes beyond challenging participants in a focus group. Whether you are a respondent in a quant survey, a qual session, or an employee or an executive, the question ‘why’ puts our guard up.  Who would you rather interact with – someone with their defenses up or someone that is open to sharing?  I bet it’s the person that’s open.  It’s up to us as researchers to keep them in that open space so that we get the information that will be of most help to our clients.

Asking good questions sounds easier than it is and yet it is vital to the success of a research project as well as getting to empathy.  Along the 5 Steps to Empathy, the 2nd step is Ask Good Questions.  Good questions are ones that are open rather than closed (other than when you truly need to get a thumbs up or down reaction, then closed questions are appropriate).  You want to let the respondent take you to their truth, rather than reflect back an affirmation of your bias.  In order to have a respondent feel that openness, you need to find ways around asking ‘why’ while still getting at the why.

What I practice is using the other inquisitive words – reframing questions to get at why by asking how, what, where, when and who. Imagine how you might have responded differently to the question “what prompted you to draw on the wall?”

Respondents will respond differently too.  We want to take the shortcut and ask the why question, but please, resist the urge.  Reframe it and you’ll find you are getting a more honest answer that is closer to authentic truth.

Once you’ve stopped using it in research projects, try removing ‘why’ from your daily vocabulary with colleagues, neighbors and even family members.  It’s likely the same effect will happen which yield richer conversation with deeper connection and meaning.  In other words, you’ll be getting to a place of empathy where you can then further the conversation to collaborate, make decisions, persuade, ideate and all the other key skills that empathy enables.

Rob Volpe is the CEO and founder of US-based insights and strategy firm Ignite 360. He is the author of Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time.

He will be speaking about the role of empathy in research on 1 June, 12:00 – 1:00 pm AEST. Register here.

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