In several of my conversations this past week, questions were asked about what we as a University might consider and do in the future...most of the questions were really statements about what people wanted to have happen or not, i.e. "Is Concordia going to build another residence hall on campus?" or "Don't you think Concordia should have a football team?" While most people would prefer a YES or NO answer so as to see if I concur with what they believe to be true, I often answer their question with another question that begins with "WHY..."? It might sound like "why do you think that is important? " or "why is that important to you?" or "where does that question come from?" What I am finding more and more is that most questions have a deeper WHY because what people are really longing for is something bigger and even more important than what is asked for in the initial question. With the question of another residence hall, people might be really asking for a more robust student life on campus...and with the question about football, most people are either a) for football and the excitement that would bring to a campus; or b) against football because of the emphasis it might take away from other programs.
I think the same theory holds true for most of what we look for in our own lives and decisions, whether it is in choosing a new home, a new car, or even as simple as what to do on a weekend. While I do not want to psychoanalyze too deeply, I believe that we often want something more than what it appears to be on the surface...are we looking for more time to spend with someone, more prestige in our lives, the ability to feel good about something, or as simple as just feeling good about doing something different?
When leading people, helping then (and you) understand the deeper WHY provides options in the decision making process, and allows for more engagement from people around the table. When confronted with a request that seems impossible due to resource constraints, or an idea whose time has not yet arrived, leaders can help their people re-frame the question or request so that the real reason can surface and the team can arrive at an answer that meets the deeper WHY. I often refer to this as moving from the tactical to the strategic, a way of thinking that should be prevalent in leadership teams.
So don't be afraid to ask the WHY question, over and over and over. It sometimes takes me 4-5 WHYs to get at the heart of the matter, at which time everyone in the room often goes, "Oh, I hadn't thought of it that way before." And next time you are asked a question that is really more of a statement, resist the urge to answer it right away and probe the questioner as to where their idea or question comes from...you both might be surprised by the answer that is given.