When looking at your organisation’s purpose, don’t start with why

The business is starting out and needs a foundation to build on. Or it’s been around a few years and is growing, fast. A venerable family-owned company is going through a changing of the guard. Or the not-for-profit organisation is trying to stay relevant. The reasons to gather around the table and take a look at purpose are myriad.

But regardless of the reason, people need a catalyst question to jump-start the discussion. And for many decades that question has started with why — why are we here?

Working with organisations on purpose as part of understanding their identity, I have spent session upon session asking why. Then one day I stood back, and instead of the catalyst to propel them forward, I saw ‘why’ as a barrier people were struggling to scale. The intent was correct. The why question was just a crummy way to get started. So I changed the question (more about that later).

I sheepishly admit I didn’t spend much time contemplating why the new one worked better. Then, a few months ago while reading Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss, a sentence jumped off the page, and I understood why the ‘why’ question didn’t work.

Even though I wasn’t reading the book to get insight about finding purpose, in hindsight, it’s no surprise that a book by a renown hostage negotiation expert would have something useful to say on the topic.

From Never Split the Difference:

Regardless of what language the word “why” is translated into, it’s accusatory. There are very rare moments when this is to your advantage.”

Suddenly people’s reactions to ‘why’ made perfect sense. Think about how it feels when someone asks “why are you here?”. Take a minute. It feels like an accusation wrapped in an inquiry, right? So before you can even start to delve into the answer, you’re already on the back foot, feeling defensive. Not the best place to start a discussion as fraught as purpose.

To learn more about why a purpose needs be a story click here.

So today I ask: “What do you care about?”

It’s a question designed with a softer tone. Chris Voss describes them as “calibrated questions” — questions carefully designed to target a particular problem. And while he notes that on rare occasions you can use why, what and how are your best bets. From the book:

“Having just two words to start with might not seem like a lot of ammunition, but trust me, you can use ‘what’ and ‘how’ to calibrate nearly any question … Even something as harsh as ‘why did you do it?’ can be calibrated to ‘what caused you to do it?’, which takes away the emotion and makes the question less accusatory.”

Chris goes on to suggest “what about this is important to you?” as a standby for almost every negotiation. I’d take that further. It’s an excellent opening gambit for purpose conversations too.

People open up more readily when you ask, “what do you care about?”. And while they might be mute on why, they are vocal on what matters to them. But no matter the starting point, the drilling through layers to what sits at the foundation still has to happen.

Whether the first answer to “what do you care about?” is “making money” or “world peace”, the following “what about that matters?” will take you to the necessary place just as effectively as five whys (minus the accusation factor).

What versus why might seem like semantics. However, being conscious and deliberate in the way we use words matters hugely. And the right question can be the difference between a purpose set free or held hostage by defensiveness.

So next time you’re embarking on a purpose quest, don’t start with why.

See you next week.

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