Asking the What and How Questions, Not the Why Questions

Asking yourself the right questions can lead to making changes here and now

Posted Dec 28, 2015

When I work with psychologists in training, one of the points I emphasize is the importance of asking the “how” and “what” questions, not the “why” questions.  A commonly held view of psychotherapy is that it involves the search for why—why I am the way I am, why I feel the way I do, why I keep doing the things I do.  We are naturally curious about our behavior and emotional reactions. There is indeed a place for interpretation in psychotherapy, for sorting out the “whys.”

In the movies, psychotherapy is often portrayed like a mental version of the popular “Whodunit?” type of TV series, such as CSI. We see a troubled person being brought back to a traumatic event or conflicted relationship. Memories start flooding back and a moment of insight occurs: Aha! we think. That’s the cause of the problem. With insight on board, emotional healing can occur and often does occur before the next commercial break. In actual practice, psychotherapy is far less dramatic, involving a kind of chipping away at self-defeating ways of thinking and behaving over time.

Therapists observe negative thinking patterns in patients that often first emerge in childhood and continue to affect how they think and function as adults. Understanding the past as prologue to the present helps put the pieces together, but it does not produce change.  For change to occur, we need to shift our focus from the “whys” to the “hows” and “whats”—to what we need to change and how we can change it.  So here’s a Minute Therapist exercise to help you practice asking yourself the “how” and “what” questions:

  • What am I saying to myself when I am feeling ______?
  • What are the circumstances which trigger these thoughts and feelings?
  • What can I say differently to myself?
  • How can I change my thoughts in situations that prompt these feelings? 
  • How can I change my behavior in situations that prompt these feelings?
  • What can I do next?

One problem with “why” questions is that people are generally not very good informants about the reasons or causes of their behavior. Asking a “why” question of a patient often draws a blank response: “I don’t know why I feel this way. I just do.” The Minute Therapist blog is not about answering “why” questions. For one thing, insight is a lengthy and often intensive process of self-exploration, not a minute exercise. The Minute Therapist suspends questions about why we are the way we are. Our focus here is on the “what” and the “how”—making changes in our thinking and behavior in the moment, the here and now, as in the following case example:

Stan related to me during a therapy session how he had applied rational self-talk to an incident involving a parking ticket: "I was shopping on Main Street and thought I had some more time left on the parking meter. But when I returned to the car, I found the time had expired and I'd been ticketed. To be honest, this could have wrecked my day. I know I have a tendency to become unhappy all day long over little aggravations. But I was able to think rationally to myself and just let it go, saying to myself, 'What's the big deal?'"

Stan used the self-questioning method to examine his thoughts and then countered with a rational alternative: “'Well,' I said it myself, 'it's only a ticket. Annoying, yes, but it’s no catastrophe. I didn't let it consume me the way it once would. Things like the parking ticket that had annoyed me before are now annoying me less."

Stan found that by countering negative thinking with rational self-talk he felt more in control of his reactions to events and was better able to deal with minor annoyances without letting them ruin his whole day.

© 2015 Jeffrey S. Nevid