Our choice of words not only tells a great deal about us but also paves the way for how we ultimately think. Without us ever realizing the power the words we use, many times, guide our next thoughts.
Asking any of the five words listed above, where – who – when – what – why, immediately sets up our next question. They lead us in a direction or either discovery, declaration, explanation or validation.
What and why are words that focus on the past. What happened asks us to share the events that led up to where we are now. While sounding innocent enough, we tend to selectively hear what supports our belief as to why something happened.
Sometimes people use what in a different way that is not collaborative but rather rhetorical. What problem are we solving? What happened? What is going on? These are all questions waiting for the person asking them to quickly respond. Telling others the answer based on their beliefs. What is often used to find where blame should be given. What happened is your fault. Always trying to make ourselves look smarter.
What shortcuts all of our thinking. In an effort to show our “smarts” we say this is what must have happened. This is what the problem is that we should be working on. Throwing nuance out the window for simplistic declarations that may not lead to any productive next steps.
Why is an open ended question that always is wrapped in the stories we want to tell others about ourselves. Why is a subjective question. For whoever answers this question will always try to defend what they did. Why always looks backward. Its weakness lies in its subjectivity.
As we turn our attention to where – when – who, we begin to see a different emphasis. Where is much more than a question about location. It can be used as an exploratory question. Where should we look to learn more about what we are hearing? Where did the problem start from (for example root cause analysis focuses on where we should look next before deciding what is going on)? Asking where should I look, begins to bring some accountability to ourselves that more of our effort is needed to understand before judging.
Who and when are the practical ones of the bunch. They make us accountable for next steps. Acting as field generals. Focusing us, not on reliving the past, but rather forcing us to plan intentionally our next steps. Providing both leverage and urgency to developing the answer to how we will push on. Making us much more effective in our journey.
Reflection is important in our lives. Our tendencies to answer what and why questions quickly are not what reflection is all about. Making them dangerous in the short term for misguiding us into making poorer decisions along the way. Remember where first to remind us to explore further before either deciding or judging. Then using who – when – how to force us to take action. Helping us move on from day to day. Hopefully in a more thoughtful and productive way.