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Asking the What and How Questions, Not the Why Questions

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

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

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