Do you ask people for excuses? That is, do you ever say, “Please make up an excuse for why you acted in that insensitive, thoughtless, or awful manner”?
Probably not! After all, an excuse isn’t all that helpful, is it? Yet, when we ask, “Why did you do that?” we are often inviting an excuse.
That’s not the way we tend to think of it, of course. Instead, we tell ourselves, “I need to know the reason. Perhaps there is a perfectly logical explanation. Maybe it was unintentional. Or they just don’t know any better. Maybe this action did make sense; I simply didn’t understand what was behind it.”
OK. Little Johnny had a tantrum, so you ask him, “Why did you throw your blocks through the window?” Johnny replies: “Because Little Susie knocked down my castle.” Does that tell you anything that you didn’t already suspect?
Or take Sammi, your belligerent teenager, who appears to have ignored yet another curfew. What do you learn when you ask, “Why do you keep doing this?” Sammi offers an excuse: “Bobbi was late and I needed a drive home.” If your goal is to have curfew respected, will that excuse make a difference in what you now decide to do?
Asking “Why?” also invites blaming others. You may hear excuses that suggest control was in someone else’s hands. Little Johnny blamed Little Susie; but Little Johnny wasn’t forced to throw blocks. Sammi blamed Bobbi, yet Sammi likely had other options (including phoning home.)
What might work? If you want to see a change in behaviour, questions that may be more effective than “Why?” include: “What is your plan now?” “How will you prevent this situation in the future?” “How will you repair the damage that you’ve caused?” or even, “Can you play nicely with Little Susie for the next half hour?”
Sometimes, we make excuses to ourselves, too. When you forget to drop off the drycleaning for the umpteenth time, instead of asking, “Why did I do that again?” try asking something different. “What can I do to prevent forgetting the next time?”
In his book, A Set of Directions for Putting and Keeping Yourself Together, Dr Bob Wubbolding says, “It’s ironic, but if you can consistently avoid asking one person for excuses, you will learn to make fewer of your own excuses.”
It’s natural to ask, “Why?” We’re curious creatures! However, the question comes down to whether it’s more effective to know why or to know what to do. If you want to see a different behaviour, then changing what you ask may be a start. Try asking, “What now?” rather than “Why?” and see whether there’s a change.
Can you think of an opportunity to give this a try? You are welcome to let me know whether you see any change.