I recently heard a coach pose a Why? question to help his client notice the negative results she achieved, hoping she’d recognize the need to make other choices going forward. Her response merely defended and denied her actions. Why? was the wrong question to lead her to her internal deliberations.

Aside from universal questions, like ‘Why is the sky blue?’, Why? is a common tool used by curious coaches, managers, healthcare providers and parents seeking an explanation for an undesirable behavior; to discover the root cause of something; to find an opening to offer ‘better’ choices.

Whatever the reason, Why? is posed when someone – an Asker – gets triggered by an outcome (something said or done) that runs counter to their expectations. In other words, biased and subjective, likely not getting to the specific neural circuit that caused the queried action.

Due to the way brains listen and how they store information and trigger choice, Why? merely finds a top of mind response, potentially overlooking the specific criteria-based neural synapse (out of 100+ trillion) that triggered it. I’ll explain the process in as simple terms as I can, starting with my definition of a question.

Note: this essay explains how behaviors get triggered in brains, which I’ve been unpacking for decades. For folks not wanting the detail I offer, just note because of the way brains ‘listen’ and how questions are formulated, Why? questions usually do not get to the specific neural circuits where authentic answers are stored.


question is a group of words chosen, and biased, by an Asker to elicit a response to meet their curiosity, goals and needs.

The problem begins when the Asker assumes Responders will hear/understand/respond to the question as intended (Bad odds). As you’ll see, as per the way brains ‘listen’, there’s a probability the Responder isn’t accurately hearing the intent behind the question. As an Asker do you know:

  • if the answer you get is accurate? Does the Responder know if it’s accurate?
  • if there’s a different, or better, answer that might have been uncovered with a differently worded question?
  • if your choice of words triggered unspoken resistance or unconscious defense?
  • what you’ll do with the answer you get? How will this response help you or the Responder fix the problem?

When you pose a Why? question, are you aware

  1. you’re using your own curiosity, words, intent, challenges, assumptions and goals, ensuring bias in a question that compares an expected outcome against what actually occurred?
  2. you can’t know how the wording in your query biases the Responder’s answer. And you likely have no idea what the Responder heard you say.
  3. the response obtained is automatic, habitual and mechanical, and doesn’t get to the belief-based root of the problem.
  4. you’ve put the Responder into an automatic, out-of-choice perspective (i.e. a Self reference rather than a more neutral Witness/Coach/Observer viewpoint) where they will automatically defend themselves.

Net net, Askers have no idea how a Responder is hearing them, and Responders have no idea if what they think they’ve heard is accurate. And the Responder’s brain will automatically seek out whatever existing circuitry corresponds to what it translated – not necessarily the circuit that prompted the original action.

But there’s one more piece: standard, and Why?, questions miss an opportunity to lead folks to their real answers or helpful insight. You see, behaviors and actions are triggered by neural circuits that have been assembled from different parts of our brain and body. There is a specific circuit that prompts an action, and since it’s physiological and unconscious, it’s difficult to get to.

Hence, finding the ‘right’ answer is a brain problem: both a brain problem and a word problem with the right type of question, the brain will find the original circuit that caused the action, and, where there’s a problem, notice an incongruence and either find an accurate answer or handle change itself.


The issues that make Why? questions less than useful originate in our neural circuits. Brains neither listen accurately nor store information logically. Your question

  • enters (an ear) as a sound vibration that,
  • after some deletions,
  • gets turned into electrochemical (meaningless) signals
  • that get dispatched to a ‘similar-enough’ neural circuit
  • where the signals undergo more deletions
  • before they’re translated into meaning – what we think we hear.

The odds of a listener accurately understanding the intent behind incoming words (or puffs of air, as Neuroscience calls them) are slim. Indeed, brains, lazy as they are, send incoming words/vibrations/ signals to the ‘closest’ circuits (superhighways), offering relatively superficial responses as translations.

It becomes pernicious: our lives are ruled by the way our existing neural circuits translate incoming data. All that we hear, see, feel, notice, etc. is converted into meaning via our existing circuits.

In other words, our lives are restricted, i.e. biased, by what’s already in there that represents our histories, mental models, and beliefs. We don’t even notice things around us that have no neural circuitry to translate!

So if a Why? question is posed according to some criteria not recognized by the Responder, there’s no way to get an accurate answer. And sadly, neither the Asker or the Responder can notice what’s missing: when our brain tells us X was said, we have no reason to question it, even though Y was intended. For those interested in understanding more of how brains translate information and generate new circuits, read my book HOW?.


Since there’s no way to know exactly how a Responder has translated the Asker’s words into meaning, there’s a chance a Responder will interpret the Why? query beyond the intent of the question and won’t recognize a disparity. (Note: see my book WHAT? Did you really say what I think I heard?)


To find an accurate answer to any personal question it’s necessary to discover the neural circuit that holds the underlying criteria that triggered the action. But Why? makes it difficult as it sets up an automatic defense: a standard response often begins with “Because…”


Given my lifelong dedication to discovering how to make the unconscious conscious, I spent 10 years developing a question that would reach the specific neural circuit in the brain where the correct answer was stored. My personal query: How could a question be posed that would be devoid of bias and lead a Responder to the specific neural circuit to find their own criteria-based answer? Here are a few of the rules I came up with:

  • A Responder must have maximum access to as much of their unconscious neural set-up as possible. To do this a question must instigate a Witness/Observer/Coach perspective, outside of their automatic, habituated modality to see a broader view with less bias and less attachment to a specific response.
  • The wording of the question must capture criteria from several existing neural circuits.
  • The questions must be posed in specific sequences, following the steps of how brains change and decide.
  • Questions should avoid an Asker’s needs or curiosity, but enable Responders to find the elements within their neural circuitry that triggered their own behaviors.

In other words, I took the personal curiosity out and added in the elements that lead the Responder’s brain to their criteria-based answers.


Ultimately I invented Facilitative Questions that are worded to prompt Responders into Observer modality, lead them down a specific sequence to specific circuits that hold the underlying beliefs and mental models that triggered their queried actions, then down their steps of discovery. So:

How would you know it were time to reconsider your hairstyle? instead of Why do you wear your hair like that?

Great for coaches to lead clients to permanent change, for sellers to lead prospects through their buying decision journey, for healthcare providers to lead patients through to permanent habit change. No bias.

Since Facilitative Questions take a few weeks to learn to formulate – learning them requires

  • a discovery of several neural circuit,
  • a knowledge of the different elements of the question and what’s within each segment,
  • invoking an Observer mindset/perspective with words,
  • the sequences involved,
  • an understanding of how brains are set up to receive/trigger output.

In other words, just hearing a few of them will not provide the knowledge to formulate them. Here is a link to a learning accelerator I offer: Or my book HOW? includes a 100 page chapter on Facilitative Questions.

Whichever you choose, consider using Why? questions for everyday things, like Why are we having spaghetti again tonight? To enable decision making, change, habit formation, or to fix a problem, Why? is not your best question.


Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including her new book HOW? Generating new neural circuits for learning, behavior change and decision makingthe NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com.    

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July 1st, 2024

Posted In: Communication, News