Never ‘Why?’ but ‘How?’

Working with people can get pretty tough. It could be on a school project, at work, or even by just a normal casual conversation.

The persistence of differing views is a key contributor to multiple disagreements between people. Over time, working with people and currently on my product team, I encounter numerous unavoidable challenges with both internal and external stakeholders.

Previously, I thought we have different interests and views. However, after a thorough empathetic retrospective, I realize we sometimes have similar interests only humanity in me won’t let me see beyond my nose and to their view.

How does “Why” make people feel?

Humans are in touch with their emotions and are inherently irrational beings. This drives our conversation and decision process. We love to be heard and like my dad would say “No one likes to be told that their food tastes bad”.

Try asking ‘why’ for every ask you get in a conversation. I hope you don’t get punched in the face. People would likely pick offense or feel some resentment at the very least when you ask ‘why’. Even when asked reasonably.

Working with teams and on calls, I would ask “Why” for a lot of requests. I mean, that’s what the books say is the Job of a product manager. I got stuff done but with more friction. I realized the following when speaking about a feature proposal or suggestion :

  • Reduced buy-in from the proposer of the idea or the team
  • Lowered confidence to validate the suggestion
  • Less enthusiasm to even explain the reason behind the idea
  • Overall resentment and pushback from the other party.
  • Less room for collaboration

Something just seemed aggressive with the word ‘Why’. Especially if you’re a key decision-maker.

I did a lot of retrospective and some research on how to approach requests and negotiating to a “that’s right” from all parties. I read the book “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss. I picked a very clever tactic that worked almost instantly.

Here comes the savior.

The Important “How”

Chris Voss in his book stated the need to use How instead of Why in negotiations. It instantly displays empathy and a form of agreement to see reason before commitment.

I sorted to apply this negotiation skill to product development with my teammates and it worked almost instantly. I reframed feature questions from something like “Why should we create an invoice generator at this time?” to “How will an invoice generator benefit us at this time?”.

With ‘How’, it’s clear I’m no longer questioning the request on the surface but trying to understand the underlying reason behind the request. Also, it is an instant call for collaboration, the other party does have the work to validate the idea by providing specific reasons.

Little change, big difference.

I changed “Why do you think this is important to our business?” to “How will this benefit our business?”. A common interest is declared and we move from what seems like an accusation to a call for an investigation. The collaboration between teams increased and everyone is always rallied around a shared interest.

A common use of “Why” by product managers and leaders is “Why are we delayed on this?” “Why are we here on the timeline”. These are instantly deemed as aggressive. Replacing those with “How are we delayed on this” and “How are we here on the timeline”, still shows the importance of the situation but requests valid causation which leads to a viable line of action.

Another alternative to using “How” is its sibling, “What”. This also produces an open-ended question and provides an investigative stance rather than a pushback accusatory stance. “Why should we put the button on the left” becomes “What do we intend to achieve with the button on the left”.

Be careful not to sound dumb when asking “How” without context. Plainly throwing “How?” to the wind could be returned with “How what?”. Paradise of confusion yeah.

“Why” still has its place, however, it’s used sparingly, and understanding the emotional triggers it plucks when used, cannot be overly emphasized.

Here’s to becoming better 🥂


This article was originally published on Hackmamba

Human, Developer, Developer Advocate… I like and a couple of other cool stuff. William Imoh!