Simon Sinek popularized asking ‘why’ to uncover – or create – the driving force behind any endeavour, whether related to business, a political or societal cause, personal or other: why we do something is the foundation for the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of what we do.
If we have clarity about why we do something, we are also in a position to communicate much more powerfully. Sinek urges us to flip around the way we communicate: not by going on about ‘what’ we do (e.g. ‘we demonstrate against environmental policies’), or ‘how’ we do it (e.g. ‘we bring together a wide, inclusive coalition for non-violent protest’), but by starting with ‘why’ (e.g. ‘we believe it's the responsibility of every human being to protect this planet’).
In my own consulting work I used the concept to help develop a common vision of a newly merged department. It works. It's a simple concept that gets to the gist of things in a structured way.
A leader who can clarify the 'why' also empowers a team by leaving it to them to figure out the 'what' and 'how' of things to be done to achieve a goal, or adapt a plan without needing to rely on the leader to spell out everything.
Don't ask 'why'!
But using the concept is not the same thing as walking around asking people ‘why’.
Asking someone ‘why’ can challenge and put them in a defensive mode – ‘why did you do that?’ is probably the question we heard most often from our parents as a kid when we did something naughty. It breaks rapport rather than building it. It can be powerful precisely because it is so incisive: calling out bullshit and shaking things up. But most relationships are probably not strong enough for a ‘why’ to be productive.
A ‘why’ also elicits a surface-level, socially acceptable story, a justification rather than an open-minded, curious search for a meaningful, perhaps more truthful, answer.
It's for these reasons that asking ‘why’ is usually avoided in coaching, where a strong relationship between the coach and coachee is essential and where the goal is to go beyond surface-level chit chat, stories we tell others and ourselves and move towards richer elaboration of one's thoughts & feelings. These are the same reasons hostage negotiators avoid ‘why’: to build and maintain a strong relationship while at the same time figuring out what is going on.
A ‘why’ question can easily be reformulated as an open ‘what’ and ‘how’ question and still get at the same thing:
‘Why do you do this?’ becomes ‘How does doing this help?’
‘Why is this important to you?’ becomes ‘What makes this important to you?’
Or simply ‘tell me about…’
So, start with why, but don't start with why: starting with why we do something is a powerful way to convey our endeavour, but the word ‘why’ itself is often not the best word to use in a conversation.