Is “Why” an Appreciative Question?

Posted: May 20, 2014

A few days ago I shared a fascinating HBR article on LinkedIn titled, Become a Company That Questions Everything. The article talks about how companies should encourage curiosity in the workforce by inviting employees and other stakeholders to ask questions. The article itself has a large graphic of the word “why”. As I shared the article on our various social media outlets, one person asked me if “why” is an appreciative question. I stopped what I was doing just so that I could let that question sink in. I mean, I believed it could be, depending on the context in which it is used but I was curious as to what others thought.

After pondering the question for a day or so, I posted the question on various LinkedIn groups I am connected to. The question spread like wildfire. I was honored that so many people took the time to share their thoughts and experiences. The discussions that emerged were engaging and insightful.

Most of the responses I read agreed that while “why” might not be the first choice in questions we ask our clients, it could, however, be appreciative depending on the context, tone, intention, and the level of trust between the inquirer and the client. In my work with Appreciative Inquiry, I have learned that crafting questions, so that they are both appreciative and meaningful to the client, is more of an art form than methodology. Our success as practitioners lies in our ability to recognize which type of question will work best for the situation. Many of you provided great examples of appreciative “why” questions. Some examples of appreciative “why” questions included, but were not limited to:

  • “Why do you think this works so well?”
  • “Why do we feel great when we accomplish something as a team?”
  • “Why do you think you are at your best when you do something that you enjoy?”
  • “Why was ________ a success?”
  • “Why do you feel you learned so much from this challenge?”
  • “Why it is important for you to accomplish this?”
  • “Why am I seeing so many great traits in my partner now?”
  • “Why am I feeling so much more confident now?”
  • “Why is this pursuit becoming alive for you?”

One person wrote, “When using ‘why’ to draw out the best potential in something it helps to invigorate imaginations”; another wrote, “Asking ‘Why’ can produce deeply reflective insight into the drivers for the envisioned future. It can also help define the ‘alchemy’ of what works really well.” According to the Constructionist Principle of Appreciative Inquiry, we live in a world created through our social discourse; that “our story is our perspective, and there are an infinite number of perspectives.” I believe “why” when used appropriately, can help us to peel back the subconscious layers of our mind to reveal our core values and beliefs. In my pursuit to become more mindful and appreciative, I keep a daily gratitude journal. While I ask myself the common “who, what where, when and how” questions, I am often called to reflect on the ‘why’. I find myself reflecting on questions like, “Why do I feel so good about myself now?” or “Why is it important to reflect on the positive in this situation?” The answers to questions such as these result in a change in my perspective or a positive shift in my reality. As new information becomes available, I think it may be important to draw out such answers that may only surface as a result of the use of “why” questions.

As practitioners we must remain mindful that the questions we ask are fateful. The moment we ask a question, we begin to create change. What questions are you asking? What change are you creating? Words create worlds. As one person shared, “Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language” – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Is “Why” an Appreciative Question?


  1. CCheryl Holland says:

    I find “why” questions to be a tangled web that far to frequently ends with a negative connotation. “Why”, whether followed by a positive or negative question, ask the client to provide an excuse. The question “why” in itself is pushing for an explanation for their behavior. The “why do you think you feel so good about what you have accomplished”, can bring out a deep-down realization that the motivation was to prove someone wrong or to bring forth a prideful realization. For many this plays against their social, moral and sometime religious core value and taints any positive outcome that may have been achieved.

  2. Mmichael says:

    I’ve found that ‘why’ questions, even all the ones listed above generate arbitrary answers without necessarily being definitive in any way. On any given day, when one asks why, the mood or the pervasive circumstance will color the ‘why’ answer.

    Next, the “why” answer, since it is a function of perspective and perception, is such a shifting morass of interpretation that people will even invent their own ‘why’s’ to justify a pov that serves them either unconsciously or consciously.

    People will also make up stuff to support their paradigm of belief when asked why something is or isn’t within them. I.e. someone being asked why they believe in the ten commandments…”well, because the bible says they are valuable and the lord rules over all”

    So, by and large I haven’t found the question useful to much degree

    If asked why I haven’t, I could reply with the three instances above, as potential “reasons”. I could also say something like “when I was asked why as a kid it was only when I did something wrong” which would then create a kind of confirmation bias about what happens when i witness a why question in play.

    Or I could say, I haven’t found the question why to be useful because in my past I was beaten by parents or derided in school for constantly asking why questions. Or I could simple say “that’s been my experience”.

    The ways to use an answer to why to justify one’s behavior are many.

    Any and all could be the reasons which gives a perfect example for “why” I don’t find why questions to be all that valuable

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