How to Ask “Why?” Without Causing Offence

Young children are not afraid to ask “why?” and often do so (to their parents’ annoyance) umpteen times a day. They only later learn from their parents, teachers and bosses that the question “why?” often makes people uncomfortable. So how can you ask "why" without causing offence?

Put your hand on your heart: how often have you answered the question “why” from your children with “because I say so, that’s why!” or just with “because!” We are not alone in doing this, so over time these responses to asking “why” have taught us not to be curious; that we shouldn’t stick our noses in other people’s affairs.

This conditioning to not be nosey means we are quickly caught in a dilemma when meeting a potential customer: without knowing "why" your customer does or allows certain things - in other words without sticking your nose into their business - you will never find out what their real needs are and so will not be able to tailor your sales presentation accordingly.

Not understanding what the real needs are will make it harder for you to close sales. On the other hand if you ask “why” too directly there is the danger that the customer will block questions about their reasons, or give you flimsy answers.

So how can you skillfully slip in the word “why”?

Communication skills training experts say that when you ask “why?” your question must not contain any value judgement or criticism. Such criticism is often implied in your tone of voice and “critical” body language signals, such as raised eyebrows or hand gestures. Any hint of judgement or criticism from you will cause the customer to be defensive. Remember that your gestures do not always express what you actually want to say!

One way round asking “why” directly is to reframe your question so it does not contain the word “why”.

Try the following alternatives for “why”:

  • “You obviously have a good reason for saying that. Could you explain to me in more detail?”
  • “What are you thinking of, when you say...?”
  • “How do you find that…?”
  • “How have you come to this decision…?”
  • “If I know the reasons for your decision, I can make concrete suggestions. Can you help me here?”

Another method is to directly ask the client for permission to ask your "why" question:

“Would you mind telling me about your reasons?”

Whichever of these sales communication skills techniques you use to find out your customers reasons, practice will make you more aware and proficient at asking “why” without causing offence.