Perseverating on a Power Outage: Why vs. How

There has been a lot of buzz about WHY the power outage happened at the Super Bowl. I have an answer to that one. Here it is. Get ready. Because stuff like that happens. It’s part of chaos theory, right? It’s evidence of the “s*%^ happens” clause. Whether a Niners fan sabotaged the power box or Beyoncé blew out the circuits or the convention down the street gobbled up the electricity, it’s still part of the surprising, unpredictable, and disruptive quality of this thing we call life.

Sometimes asking WHY is not the most helpful question. One of my spiritual teachers, Dr. Marie, called WHY the question of the inner toddler. It is the question that voices our demanding need to know and that is rarely satisfied with the answer. In fact, that child-part of us often asks WHY simply to find a reason to be angry, entitled, or victimized. Often, there is not a truly satisfying or productive (in terms of handling the situation) answer to WHY questions.

The more helpful question is HOW.

Think about it. When the power went out at the Super Bowl, two teams were undoubtedly asking WHY it was happening. But here is the HOW question. HOW do we handle this power outage happening in the middle of the most important game of our lives? Clearly, San Francisco did a better job with this HOW question during the Super Bowl. Asking WHY would have been a waste of mental/emotional resources during that moment. How often are we spending our energy on WHY when we ought to shift to HOW?

  • Why do I eat so much junk food? vs. How do I live healthier with these overwhelming urges?
  • Why is God allowing this to happen to me? vs. How is God meeting me in this and how can I utilize my spiritual resources?
  • Why is my spouse so annoying? vs. How can I handle my irritation?
  • Why does my boss give preference to the younger employees? vs. How might I best present myself to my boss and ask for what I want?
  • Why am I like this? vs. How do I deal tenderly with myself when I’m so moody?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that developing insight about your motives is a waste of time, but staying in the WHY sometimes leads to bitterness and avoidance of the present-day work. The best psychotherapists know when to lead clients to address which question. Too often, the HOW is ignored and the WHY is overemphasized, leading to months in therapy with no evidence of life change!

Doing well with the HOW question almost enabled the San Francisco to take the Super Bowl from the Ravens. Thankfully, it seems that in the fourth quarter, the Ravens may have shifted from WHY to HOW:

  • Why did this momentum shift like this? Vs. How do we turn the tide on this momentum shift?

 

Where are you asking WHY when you would benefit from shifting to HOW?

12 comments


  • Janice

    How am I going to incorporate this thoughtful article into my daily thought life and encourage those I love to do the same. Thank you Janice for another insightful and relevant article reminding us to live well.

    February 5, 2013
    • Rob Zeigler

      That’s weird, my comment looks like it was written by Janice. It was me, not Janice thanking herself for a great article. I must have accidentally typed her name in the little box.

      February 5, 2013
    • Janice McWilliams

      Thanks for clarifying, Rob! People might have been tempted to ask, “WHY is Janice so narcissistic?” rather than “HOW do I respond to such a narcissistic writer?”

      February 5, 2013
  • Vernon

    This is excellent and timely. I have never thought of this type of approach to difficulties. However, thinking of the appropriate “how” question can be a real challenge.

    February 5, 2013
  • Janice, I’m printing this one out to give to clients!!!

    February 5, 2013
  • Elise Rittler

    I love the way this distinction between the two questions can help me make the shift from unhelpful worry and rumination to more helpful problem solving and action. Very helpful and useful framework. Thanks for an excellent post!

    February 5, 2013
  • Jan

    Great insight Janice! I think I’ll “borrow” your insights for how I live and work with my people. Now my only question is: How do I deal with the grief of losing to the Ravens?

    February 5, 2013
  • Michael

    so “power outages happen” as an analogue to “thought happens?”

    February 5, 2013
  • Peggy E

    Brilliant idea! I feel like I’m going to add this to my toolbox of helpful insights with students.

    February 6, 2013
  • Linda Scott

    So true! I just recently went through some tumult at work and found the “why” questioning very unsatisfying, as you suggest, though it did provide some insight into the situation. Fortunately I shifted relatively quickly to the “how” mode and got back on a productive track. Reading your post confirms this is the right way to spend my energy in this situation. Thanks for your always thoughful writing!

    February 6, 2013
  • […] Perserverating on a Power Outage: Why vs. How from Janice McWilliams An interesting look at how to change the question you’re asking to change the story. […]

    February 8, 2013
  • Rick

    You’ve got some good insights here. But creating an unnecessary antagonism between “why” and “how” questions is a shortcut that can wind up undermining critical thinking and the willingness to dive deep to difficult but important places (despite your qualification about the value of understanding one’s own motives). The real meta-questions one should be asking (without the shortcut) include the following: What kinds of questions will be most helpful at what times, and for what purposes? And how can crucial questions be worded so as to be non-threatening and productively stimulating to the receiver (oneself or another)? There’s no simple formula for which interrogative words will be more or less helpful in any given situation. So, for example, “HOW could you do that to me?!” or “HOW could I be so stupid?” will in most cases probably not elicit a productive response. On the other hand, “WHY do you suppose you feel angry when she says that sort of thing?” could be a useful invitation to reflection and self-empowerment. But if that latter formulation risks seeming judgmental or threatening, a re-wording to the following might be more the ticket: “WHERE is the hurt in that for you?”

    February 27, 2013

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