“How are you?” “Oh I’m so busy”. It’s such a common refrain. Probably the most common refrain heard in elevators up and down the country. Maybe second to “How was your weekend?” “Not long enough...” followed by a soulless chuckle. But it’s really the wrong question to be focusing on.


It’s a famous question because 3-year-olds love to ask it. Why? Why? Why? Until we run out of answers and sometimes just resort to “because I said so” or the more humbling “because God”. But the thing with “why” is it seems we forget to ask it when we’re older.

Why are you busy? Why are you doing what you are doing? What is the outcome you’re trying to achieve? We all just plough on without actually thinking about why we’re ploughing. And yet it’s the most important question to ask, because if we ask it we might find that what we’re doing isn’t the right thing at all. And we could be better spent doing other things.

People don’t really care about process. They care about outcomes. And they especially care about those outcomes if they relate directly to them. So if you’re in business, don’t talk about what your business will do for a customer, talk about how your actions will help that customer. It’s all about the why. Why do you do what you do? Keep asking why until you can no longer ask. And at this point you have your reason.

I work in PR and communications. Why? Because I like to help people tell their stories. Why? So that they present themselves in the best way possible and help them in whatever industry they work.

That was a quick example, but in a chain of just two “whys” we got from what I do for a job to how it can help you.

Another example is from when I was working in parliament. The Green Party has a policy to clean up New Zealand’s rivers. Which is a well-meaning and nice-sounding policy but it doesn’t really connect with anyone on an emotional level. What’s in it for them? So why is that the Green Party policy? Well it’s the policy so that the rivers are clean. Why should they be clean? So that we can swim in them again. Ah so your policy – cleaning rivers – will have the outcome of allowing me to swim in the rivers. I understand this now and I can connect with it. So instead of talking about a clean rivers policy, we used to talk about “making our rivers clean so your kids can swim in them again like you did when you were a child”. It’s a shift away from the tool – cleaning rivers – to the outcome – you can now swim in them again. And this linguistic shift connects far better when you’re trying to convince someone of something.

So the next time you’re doing something at work, ask why you’re doing it, and keep going. And if you can’t find an answer then maybe re-think what you’re doing. Why? Because it’ll be a better outcome for you if you know the reason.

Image courtesy of Ksayer