Asking WHY Can Lead to the Wrong Answer

As Business Analysts, we need to know WHY people do what they do to figure out opportunities for improvement. It turns out that asking WHY is a lousy way to find out. If we ask “WHY”, we will get an answer, but there is a good chance we get the wrong answer. WHY, you might ask 😊?

It is not that people lie all the time. We often do not know “WHY” we did something – but we think we do. We are extremely good at making up answers to WHY we behave the way we do – and we are absolutely convinced we are right.

In the book “7 Secrets of Persuasion: Leading-Edge Neuromarketing Techniques to Influence Anyone”, Dr. Crimmins explains why asking the WHY question often leads to the wrong answer. Since this is based on the most recent neurological studies, it is slightly complicated, so please bear with me.

A Real-Life Learning Model

For starters, consider how we learn anything. According to the “Conscious Competence” model of learning, we all go through 4 mental states in the process of acquiring a new ability. We all start at the same place, “Unconscious Incompetence”. We are not aware that we can’t do something or that we need to. When we start to learn about it, we are in the state of “Conscious Incompetence, meaning we are aware that we don’t know how to do it, but we want to learn.

Once we learn how to do it, we reach a state of “Conscious Competence”; we can do it if we stay focused and concentrate on doing it the way we learned it. The final state, “Unconscious Competence” is when we have internalized the skill and can do it on autopilot. We don’t have to think about it anymore, we just do it.

Your Inner Lizard Is in Control

This is where the neurological studies come into play. We have two thinking modes, the conscious (aka Reflective) and non-conscious (aka Sensing). The mode you are aware of is who you think you are when you think you think. The Reflective mode handles anything for which evolution did not prepare us. It learns what, when, where, and how to do anything new, from walking and talking as a toddler to doing our job as an adult.

The heavy lifting, however, is done by the mode that we have in common with our reptilian ancestors. For that reason, that mode is often called your “inner Lizard” (whom I have affectionately named Liz).  Liz is our non-conscious mental process. She is who we are when we do not think about it. She manages our heartbeat, body temperature, breathing, blinking, and everything needed to keep us alive.

Thanks to Liz, we can walk, talk, sense, fall in love, and do all those trivial things we do without conscious thought. Liz is also in charge of all our learned actions like driving a car, playing a sport, reading a book, or doing our job. She is smart, intuitive, and acts whether we are aware of her or not. This is the mode in which we use those “Unconsciously Competent” skills.

The Superpower of Business Analysts

WHY is this important to you as a Business Analyst? I believe that great Business Analysts are imbued with a superpower: the ability to ask the right questions. But what are the right questions? Turns out, knowing HOW to ask the question might be more important than knowing WHAT to ask. Changing how you ask can lead to getting better answers.

Finally, I ran across this extremely enlightening article that explains the cause. Asking me “WHY” I do something implies that you think I’m doing it wrong. If I get the sense that I am wrongfully accused, I quickly get defensive. (As someone who suffers a major hang-up from my youth regarding false accusations, I can testify – as can my wife.)

Brain studies show that when we are asked WHY we did something, our conscious mind immediately rationalizes why we did what we did after the fact – and then defends that answer. It has been shown that behavior even changes our perception of right or wrong. Our conscious mind justifies our actions, so we can feel comfortable with who we are.

Deduce the WHY: Changing Your Questions Improves the Answers

If you change your question from WHY I did something to WHAT I did, I can answer without considering defending myself. Consider the difference:

“Why is your project late?” (begs justification and triggers defensive response) “Because …”

“What could we do to speed your project up?” (invites ideation) “Well, we could …”

Your job, as a great BA, is to formulate your questions in a non-combative manner that allows you to deduce the WHY. That will get you better answers quicker without upsetting me (or, more importantly, your Subject Matter Experts) nearly as much.

If this fascinates you as much as it obviously fascinates me, WHY not try it?

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