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What's Better than Why?

Is asking “why?” a good question for the boardroom?

A "why" question can work well during a board meeting because it can help clarify the reasoning behind decisions or actions that the organization has taken. A "why" question can also help uncover potential issues or challenges that may need to be addressed. However, it’s important to frame a “why” question in a constructive way to avoid appearing confrontational.

In the heat of the moment, framing a question carefully is easier said than done. So, how might we, as directors, ask “why?” in a safe way that avoids causing feelings of confrontation and defensiveness in the boardroom? How can we avoid damaging relationships among our board colleagues or with members of the management team?


“One way to ask "why" without being confrontational is to frame the question in a curious and open-minded way. For example, instead of saying "Why did we decide to pursue this strategy?", you could say "I'm curious to understand the reasoning behind pursuing this strategy. Can you walk me through the factors that led to this decision?" 

This approach shows that you are genuinely interested in understanding the decision-making process and can help to foster a more productive conversation.” - Source: DirectorPrep’s ChatDPQ


Asking "why" questions can be perceived as confrontational or aggressive because they can sound as though you’re challenging a person's decisions or actions. They can be interpreted as an accusation or an insinuation that a decision was made or an action taken without proper consideration or judgment. This can put people on the defensive, making them feel they need to justify their actions.

And yet, when framed in a constructive and curious way, getting to "why" can be a powerful tool for uncovering underlying issues and promoting open dialogue.


Did Socrates go too far?

In the book That’s a Great Question, author Greg Bustin points out that Socrates, one of the founders of western philosophy, believed that “wisdom begins with wonder.” Socrates himself made a career out of posing uncomfortable questions to those in power.

Eventually, Socrates’ style of asking made the prominent people he questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to his trial and death. Bustin asks us, “Did Socrates ask the right question to expose a painful truth or simply ask one too many questions the wrong way?”

Bustin’s book is really about asking the right questions in business and in life. He points out that the words we use determine how our questions are received – and how they are answered. In his experience, there are seven words to avoid because they can trigger emotions that cause the person on the receiving end of the question to shut down instead of opening up.

The Seven Words to Avoid:

  • You
  • Your
  • Always
  • Never
  • Should
  • But
  • Why

Notice how Bustin’s seven words can sound judgmental, potentially creating a defensive reaction. One of his suggestions is that, instead of asking “why?”, we practice framing open-ended questions that begin with What or How.

For example, if we ask someone, “Why did you do that?”, the question clearly is accusatory. If we’re truly interested in learning the story behind a decision, it’s far better – and more likely to generate a useful response - to frame the question as “How did you decide to do that?”

By rephrasing our questions in a more positive and constructive way, we can avoid causing offense while encouraging a more productive discussion.

Reframing our questions positively and constructively is one way to practice the fourth Key Habit of The Savvy Director, which encourages us to collaborate with others, treat the board and management with respect, and work towards reaching a common understanding.


Alternatives to asking “Why?”

DirectorPrep members have full access to Chat DPQ, our AI powered tool, and they’re finding it convenient to save time and get help on a wider range of board topics than we at DirectorPrep ever imagined.

I was curious to ask ChatDPQ for insight on today’s blog topic. Using a series of prompts, I interacted with ChatDPQ to get ideas for alternatives to asking ‘why?’ that would avoid creating friction or appearing confrontational. As expected, I received some solid, practical advice.

“Here are some alternative ways to ask questions that can help you gain a deeper understanding of a topic or decision without coming across as confrontational or accusatory:

1.  What factors contributed to this decision?

2.  How did we arrive at this conclusion?

3.  What options were considered before making this decision?

4.  Can you explain the reasoning behind this decision?

5.  What were the main considerations when making this decision?

By asking questions that focus on the decision-making process rather than questioning the decision itself, you can encourage more open and productive discussions without causing offense. Additionally, asking more open-ended questions can help you gain a deeper understanding of the decision and the factors that led to it.” - Source: DirectorPrep’s ChatDPQ

As curious directors, we naturally want to know why something happened so we can understand the implications for the future. Framing our questions respectfully not only gets better answers, but also helps ensure that those being questioned look forward to speaking with us again.

In short, slow down and reframe your “why” question to help you and those around you learn and grow.


Your takeaways:

  • Words matter. People remember how you make them feel.
  • There are better ways to ask ‘why?’ in a board meeting if you care about healthy, collaborative relationships.
  • Explore for understanding using non-confrontational language.
  • Curiosity is highly valued in today’s boardrooms.
  • Avoid these seven words that can cause people to shut down instead of open up: You, Your, Always, Never, Should, But, and Why.




Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online membership with practical tools for board directors who choose a growth mindset.


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