02/22/2013 06:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2013

Upgrade Results by Avoiding 'Why' Questions

Whether you're a CEO, manager, or individual worker, a key ingredient to getting great results is asking great questions.

So I have to admit that when I hear my coaching clients ask people "why" on a regular basis, or extoll the virtues of the "17 whys," I cringe.

"Why" is a great question for research, but when results are at stake, it's actually a problem.

Case in point: consider how you might respond if I were to ask you: "Why aren't you further ahead on this project?" Or, "Why didn't you do that business analysis two months ago when I asked you to do it?"

Ouch, right?

Now, instead, what if I asked you: "What's standing in the way of getting this done, and how can you turn up the heat to deliver it by the end of next week?"

The "why" question tells you to justify or explain to me the unchangeable past. Pointless. Whereas the "what" / "how" question helps you sharpen your focus pragmatically on outcome.

Data show this to be true. As Neuro-linguists Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour point out, "How questions will get you an understanding of the structure of a problem. Why questions are likely to get you justifications and reasons without changing anything."

Try this -- it works

Now I'm going to ask you to try an experiment, one for which the credit goes to Georgetown University, where I did my training in leadership coaching. We were given an exercise to ban "why" questions for a period of time and describe what we noticed.

It works so well that I'd like you to try the same thing: ban yourself from asking "why" questions for a period, of, say, two weeks, and make notes about what you experience. Also notice how people react when others ask them "why."

My own experience was (and continues to be) very positive using this approach. I've found it a valuable tool over many years.

When pragmatic is your goal, I suggest you focus on results-oriented questions such as what and how -- they will enable you to increase effectiveness and be a great model for others.