Why ask why?

Sunday 8 December 2013

I help people with Python questions, and often those people are only casual acquaintances (at Boston Python) or complete strangers (in the #python IRC channel). There’s a common misunderstanding that can crop up in these situations. It has to do with asking why.

While helping, I often ask the asker, “why?” For example, someone will need help with the two Python installations on their laptop. I’ll ask, “Why did you install a second Python?” When I did this the other night, another guy chuckled, because he thought I meant, “You shouldn’t have installed a second Python.”

This is a common reaction. Asking why is perceived as a rebuke. “Why did you XYZ?” is taken to mean, “You dummy, you shouldn’t have XYZed!” But when I ask it, I really do mean, “I want to understand what led you to XYZ.”

English can be difficult that way, especially over a purely textual, cue-less medium like IRC. One way to soften the apparent bluntness is to add more words. For example, instead of:

Why did you install another Python?

this might go over better:

Do you mind if I ask you why you installed another Python? Understanding the reason might provide an important clue.

So if I ask you why, don’t take it personally. I really do want to know the reason for something. If I want to chide you for making a mistake, I’ll say something like, “You shouldn’t have XYZed,” or, “I don’t think it was a good idea to XYZ.”

Sometimes even when people understand I’m looking for reasons, they bristle at the question. They insist the reasons aren’t important, and why can’t I just answer a simple question?

I ask because 75% of the time, my answer changes once I know the bigger picture. It’s common for people to start with a problem, and work towards a solution, and get stuck. Then they ask about the thing they are stuck on. That’s natural. But it’s also common that the reason they are stuck is there was a better path to start down in the first place. Understanding the reasons can help find that better path.

Asking why can help find those earlier choices, and lay out the entire problem. Having all the information means we can work together to find the best solution.

If I ask you to explain the larger problem, don’t take it personally. Solving complex problems is hard, and it’s easy to choose a first step that makes the second step more difficult than it needs to be. When a helper asks about the bigger picture, they aren’t trying to make you look silly, they’re trying to help you find the best solution.

This phenomenon has a name: the XY problem. You have problem X, you choose solution Y, and when it doesn’t work, you ask about Y instead of asking about X. Despite some people’s disdain for this dynamic, it’s very common and people shouldn’t be put down for it. Sometimes the asker can’t see that there were alternatives earlier on. Sometimes the asker is trying to not take up too much of the helper’s time by asking a focused question. Whatever the reason, it happens all the time, and helpers should get out of the helping business if XY problems make them mad.

Askers: if someone asks you why, or says you have an “XY problem,” that means they are trying to help you find the best solution. Don’t feel bad. We’re all struggling together to learn and overcome complexity.

» 3 reactions


Good point.

You could make your article even better by including an example of a solution that was helped by the answer to the why-question.
Awesome, bookmarked to link it to others :)

Problem solving 101: Try to solve their real problem, not the sub-problem at hand.

Then again, I hardly ever have the problem someone takes it the wrong way if you just ask why in a non-condescending way, interesting you had that so often...
This is such a great post. I teach accounting at a university and I see that this behavior frustrates my students. They come in and ask for help and my first question is what have you done and then why did you do that. I want to understand why they made the wrong choice but the students don't want that they want the answer. I get comments on teaching evaluations along the lines of he never answers my questions he just makes me look stupid. All those extra words you have to use to make someone feel warm and fuzzy never come to my mind when I ask those questions.

I am going to include this in my required reading list

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