Words That Matter, Part 7

By Greg Baer M.D.

December 21, 2015

We are often careless with our words, and some of them are so laden with negative meanings that we cause great harm without realizing it. Recently I began a discussion of such words,
Words that Matter Part 6
Words that Matter Part 5
Words that Matter Part 4
Words that Matter Part 3
Words that Matter Part 2
Words that Really Matter

and now we’ll continue:


Nearly every day as I talk with people, I hear some variation on the word—or question—“Why?” For example:

“I just do not understand why my husband . . .”
“I don’t know why people . . .”
“Why does this have to happen to me?”
“Why are you doing that?”
“Why can’t he/she just . . .”

“Why” is a sneaky word that is often laden with accusations, expectations, demands, and more.

When we were children—more times than we could possibly remember—our parents and other adults would say, “Why are you doing that?” or “Why are you doing it that way?” Almost never was that a true question, even though it ended in a question mark. They were really saying,
“Why are you being so stupid?”
“Why are you not doing that the way I would do it?”
“How dare you attempt something your way without consulting me?”

So we learned to hear “why” as an accusation, and just as often we have adopted the same meaning in speaking that word to others.

“Why” has another meaning that is more subtle in its injurious effects. Look at the first three examples of “why” beneath the bold heading above. We are so accustomed to asking why things happen, or why people do things, that we have become blind to the implied meaning. When we ask why people behave as they do, or why something happens, we are stating that we have a right to demand an explanation for everything that happens that we don’t agree with or understand.

The arrogance of such a demand is staggering. One day Donna was driving, and she made a choice—about which lane to drive in, or whatever—that I thought was unwise, inefficient, or in some way not the choice I would have made. I began my sentence, “Why did you—” before I stopped myself and realized that I already knew the answer to that question. She made her choice because she felt like it, because it was what she wanted to do, and because she is who she is. I realized how arrogant it was for me to demand an explanation for something that was entirely her choice.

Simply by asking “why”—with few exceptions—we assume a position of authority or importance that often impairs our ability to feel humble, grateful, loved, and loving. As we question people about why they do things—which translates into asking them why they are who they are—we tend to hurt our relationships in significant ways.

So what can we do instead of asking “why,” with all its negative implications and effects? Most of the time, we could simply shut up. Try it as an experiment. The next dozen or so times that you’re tempted to ask “why,” simply close your mouth and see what happens. Mostly you’ll learn:
that you didn’t really need the answer to your question.
that your question was intrusive and often stupid.
that you weren’t really entitled to an answer.
that your relationship with that person is calmer and more accepting if you skip the “why.”

Occasionally—and I emphasize that this is only on occasion, not a regular pattern—you do have a right to ask “why,” or it might not be harmful to ask. So how could you do this better?

  • There have occasions where after a few YEARS I have become curious why Donna prepares food a certain way, or why she refrigerates one thing but not another. I emphasize that I have waited a long time to be CERTAIN that I was merely curious, not trying to change the way she does things. And then I might say, “I notice that you put ketchup in the refrigerator (even though I’ve never heard of ketchup getting moldy or becoming dangerous). I don’t care what you do with it. I just wondered why you do that.” I rarely ask such questions, and I have no investment in her answer.
  • You notice that somebody does something differently from the way you’re used to doing it. You might say, for example, “I’ve noticed that you do X when you park your car. I’ve come to respect how carefully and sensibly you make decisions, so I’m guessing that I’m missing something beneficial. Can you tell me your reasoning behind that choice?”
  • “I just noticed you do Y. I’ve never seen it done that way before. Would you mind doing it again, and explaining how you came up with that approach?”

Most people actually enjoy explaining how or why they do things IF you’re genuinely curious, but not if they sense that you’re interrogating them.

In future blogs we’ll discuss more words that have a much greater negative effect than we realize or intend.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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