4 reasons not to ask ‘why?’

Quant is about the what and qual is about the why, right? So it might seem odd for someone who works in qual insight to say: ‘don’t ask ‘why?’’

But just because we want to know why doesn’t mean we should ask why.

Open questions are the mainstay of qual, but we’d argue not all in the official list of open questions (who, what, when, where, how and why) are created equal.


In fact, we’d go so far as to say that ‘why?’ is not an open question at all.

The 4 key reasons asking ‘why?’ is problematic are:

  • It risks feeling challenging – making us feel we should have an answer – causing us to feel uncomfortable, put on the spot and under pressure (not how we want people to feel, obviously, because it just shuts them up)
  • It can feel like judgement – creating a sense that we need to justify ourselves because we’ve someone done somehow strange, or even ‘wrong’. Again, this shuts us up
  • It assumes we know the ‘why’ when we might not. We might not have ready access to the reasons behind our behaviour, thoughts or feelings so being asked can push us into coming up with an answer that isn’t naturally there
  • It assumes intent – that there’s a clear ‘grand plan’ behind what we’re doing / thinking / feeling, which can push us into pretending such a plan exists when it doesn’t – and in so doing, misses out on subtle drivers or different angles

Observing people in their natural environment is one way of getting around this, of course, and we’re great fans of ethnographic methods for this reason. But sometimes, we do need (or want) to explore more of why people do / think / feel as they do by engaging with them (digitally or F2F) and digging into this in more depth. So how do we do this without activating the demons described above?

The 4 key ways Lucid gets round the problem this are:

  • Substituting ‘why’ with other open questions, particularly those starting with ‘what’. For example ‘Why do you like X?’ becomes ‘What is it about X then?’
  • Better still, substituting questions with instructions or observations: ‘Tell me more about X’ or ‘I’m hearing you talking about X. Tell me more about that’
  • Even better still, getting people to DO things that mean they tell us what’s going on for them. That’s why we favour using active tasks, including Lucid’s unique movement-based exercises, as a way of finding out why without going near the question. Standing next to people on an imaginary barometer we’ve created, for example, and openly observing ‘so you’re here’ and listening as their ‘why’ falls out naturally
  • And in all of this, using ‘clean questioning’ (a technique borrowed from the therapy world) to minimise the impact of the questioner and access the hidden metaphors driving people’s experiences, of themselves and of brands.

If you’d like to know more about how Lucid’s methods more more of the truth from people (and and therefore better at answering your marketing and business insight needs and challenges), drop me a message here or email me at maddy@lucidpeople.com