Power of asking why and why you should not

Power of asking why and why you should notAlex asked, “Why can’t you understand the simple maths problem?”

Aaron replied, “Because I’m too slow, everybody else gets it but me, and I find it hard.”

“Ok, let’s take it step by step,” Alex said in a soft voice. “Why do you find it hard?”

“I just do because numbers confuse me,” Aaron mumbled while going slightly red.

“Oh, why do numbers confuse you?”

“Because I’m slow at numbers,” exploded Aaron.

This went on for some time. You may have witnessed this type of conversion before and quite possibly found it going in ever decreasing circles. Why is this?

‘Why loops’, the never ending spiral

Why is a powerful word. It can be used to transform, but at the same time it can paralyse someone.

You may be wondering, what is a ‘why loop’?

If you have ever had children the chances are that you would have been caught in a why loop at some time in your life. Here’s an example of such a conversion between yourself and your child:

You: “Put your coat on.”

Child: “Why?”

You: “Because it’s cold outside.”

Child: “Why?”

You: “Because it’s winter.”

Child: “Why?”

You: “Because it’s that time of year.”

Child: “Why?”

You: “Because the earth is spinning around the sun.”

Child: “Why?”

You: “Because I said so, put your coat on.”

This conclusion to the conversation was the only way to stop the why loop. You can sense a mounting frustration and it’s not necessarily the best outcome. So what is the effect of why on someone’s thinking?

The effect of why on someone’s thinking

The effect that why has on an individual is to send their brain into the past. Yes, this seemingly innocuous little word sends people back into the past to pick up reasons or an explanation.

Power to paralyse

In our opening example we see the power to paralyse with a why loop in action. When you ask someone, “Why can’t you do that?” you will send their brain into the past to pick up and reinforce why they cannot do it. So in this context it actually has quite a negative connotation.

The why loop will prompt successive answers to elicit more convincing evidence. This will continue until finally the person will have convinced both themself, and the person asking the question, that they really cannot do it.

Power to transform

Yet by using the same sentence and removing that one word ‘not’, it suddenly takes on the power to transform. Now we ask, “Why can you do that?”

In this context you will now you send their brain into the past to pick up positive evidence of them succeeding in the past.

“Why are you so great at NLP?”

“That’s because I read your articles John.”

“Well that is very kind of you to say so.”

Let’s explore this even further…..can why be used positively to solve problems?

Enter the Black Belts of Why

In the Six Sigma manufacturing process the highest level of professional skill is the Black Belt practitioner. Every Six Sigma Black Belt knows the ‘Why Five Deep’ technique.

Is this a mystical mind trick that can be wielded to control people? No, it was originally used to solve problems in engineering, in particular to determine defects.

If you have a presenting problem and you want to get to the source of it, why not try ‘Why Five Deep’? This technique will help you to find the root cause of a problem to be fixed by iterative interrogation – typically 5 times is required to resolve the problem.

For example:

  1. Why has the assembly line backed up?
    • Because too many parts were loaded on the belt?
  2. Why were there too many parts loaded on the belt?
    • Because the manual says we can
  3. Why does the manual say we can?
    • Because it’s the manual for the mark 6
  4. Why is it the manual for the mark 6 and not mark 7?
    • Because it is the one loaded on the system
  5. Why is it that manual loaded on the system?
    • Because the system has not been updated yet

Sometimes you may find that you won’t need to go ‘five deep’ to find the problem.

You can now use this for yourself. Sit down with pen and paper and pose yourself a why question. Make sure it’s something technical and not personal.


  • Why is my newsletter not being sent?
  • Why is the printer not working?
  • Why is my grass turning brown and no longer green?

My boss learnt ‘Why Five Deep’ and now uses it as a weapon

It seems like such a great tool, but ‘Why Five Deep’ has also been misused in management. Its primary purpose was always intended for engineering and consequently some people have become quite upset. Just the tone of voice used to say “Why?” can cause some people to become defensive.

As a point of caution, there is another issue we need to bear in mind here. The human brain works in an associated way and will jump all over the place to make connections. Conversely, engineering uses a linear approach where flow diagrams rule supreme. What comes out is in direct proportion to what goes in, e.g. an ideal electric motor is linear. If you double the voltage you apply to it, it will turn twice as fast. Our brains don’t work in that way and don’t neatly move towards the root cause. So be careful when using the technique outside of engineering.

So your boss may mean well, but ‘Why Five Deep’ isn’t the right tool to use on people in my opinion.


“So how would Alex get out of the paralysing loop and move to a transforming loop?” I’m glad you asked.


Alex did indeed change his question. “Aaron you are good at spelling, why?”

Looking up for the first time Aaron said, “It’s easy.”

“Why is it easy?”

Aaron started to sit up a little, “Well it’s because letters are in colour.”

Leaning forward Alex enquired, “Are they, why?”

“It helps you to spell.”

Pausing for just a moment Alex then said, “Could we turn numbers into colours?”

Sitting back fully and looking up with eyes darting back and forth, Aaron said nothing for 96 seconds. With a new-found sparkle in his eyes he suddenly exclaimed, “Yeesss!”

Normally I would be tempted at this point to say, “Why are you going to book onto our NLP Practitioner course?” However, I won’t do that.

Instead please do let me know of any topics you would like us to cover for you by posting the details below.

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