In journalism school, we were taught to always ask the 5 Ws and the H when writing news stories. In fact, early on, it was essential that the first sentences of those stories held all the answers to six questions:
Of all the questions, “why” was my favorite.
In fact, I’ve always asked why.
I would hang over the redwood fence that separated my house from my neighbor, Mr. Watkins. My skinny legs and big tennis shoes dangled above the grass in my yard that never looked as lovely and green as his. I’m sure he had a first name, but he was always just Mr. Watkins to me. He was a quiet man. And he was a master gardener. His flower beds looked like pictures from a magazine – a magazine I wanted to live inside. Those beautiful colors were a place I wanted to be. So, I would ask “why?” – why he worked so hard and why he used special dirt and why he grew this flower and not that one. I wanted to fall into the color and the fragrance and the life of that garden.
There wasn’t a week that went by without at least one apology from my mom to the beloved Mr. Watkins. She told me asking “why” so much was a bother, and that it would be better if I simply kept quiet.
I admit, there are times when an unfettered “why” can make a mess of things, like the time I took a knife to my Barbie convertible. I honestly wasn’t trying to destroy the plastic car I had gotten from Santa – the cool turquoise two-seater coupe that made Barbie seem even more real and pretty, and allowed her to see the world that existed far beyond her pretend Barbie neighborhood. I just wanted to know why the car that could take her places wouldn’t give her room to carry her suitcase or some gifts for friends, and why the car couldn’t get there just a little faster so she could feel welcomed and loved.
The car ended up in the trash can, and I ended up in time out.
I still think why is a wonderful word (though I am now far more careful with sharp objects). However, the word “why” doesn’t always live well in a grown-up world. It can be viewed as subversive or disruptive. Depending on the tone in which it is said, it can seem insecure, defensive, or even threatening. But why helps us dig a little deeper, understand a little more. It gives us clarity, connects us with others, and helps to deepen our faith.
Why is good: the secret is in asking the right why.
While the English language limits us to one version of the word, there are two ways to ask “why” in Spanish: PORque and PARA que. At face value, both are translated “for what?” but there’s power in that PARA que.
Porque is defined most often as “explanation.” But para que is loosely translated as “for what purpose?” Yes, with every why, that 6-year old me dangling over the fence was really asking Mr. Watkins para que about the flowers and the dirt and the perfect garden. I wanted to know how it all worked together, and I wanted to understand his love for it all.
There are times when a simple explanation will do. But far more often in both business and personal conversation, the why we ask is that para que why. Again, we want to better understand so that we can better respond. That 6-year old was stuck with a single one-word question, but you’re not. Here are three great ways to ask a “for what reason” why without ever using the word.
- Ask questions that hone in on specifically what needs greater clarity. One of the standards I use is “Help me understand ______________.”
- Ask questions that open the door to greater detail, like “what led to this decision?”
- Ask questions that provide opportunity for aspirations and personal motives to be shared, like “What is your hope?” or “What would you like to see happen?”
Now, I have a project for you – a porque versus para que assignment, if you will. Think about a situation in your life where you wanted – or needed – an answer to the “why.” Maybe it was a time of personal struggle, or maybe you witnessed things happening in someone else’s life. Perhaps it’s something you’re experiencing right now. Ask yourself, “for what reason or purpose?” Yes, you can even use the suggested questions above. Write down what you are learning or have learned, what you understand now that you didn’t understand before, what questions you now know to ask yourself, and what things you might teach others based on your experience – things like faith or fortitude or need.