Stop Asking Why … No, Seriously!

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal”
— Robert A. Heinlein

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”
— Blaise Pascal

Imagine a person with the following mental defect: the part of his mind that makes decisions is largely disconnected from the rest of his mind. And instead of being aware of this disconnect, he simply makes up reasons for his decisions … and believes them!

Like everything else, this mental defect has a name. It’s called (drum roll, please): “normal.”

It seems that the “conscious mind” is not doing much of our thinking. Not does it communicate very well with the parts that are doing the heavy lifting. But our conscious mind believe that it’s doing all the work.

Is this true? This is fairly easy to demonstrate, especially with such as brain imagery. In one experiment, scientists could watch the decision-making process humming along in the unconscious regions of the brain. After the decision is made, there’s a delay before the conscious mind learns about it—in some cases, up to seven seconds!

People usually aren’t aware of the delay, and they’re even less aware that the process happened outside of their awareness. But there are things we can do to bring the processes into better alignment.

My guess is that the conscious mind acts more as a communications module than as a thinking engine. The conscious mind turns experiences into words so they can be explained to other people, or to ourselves.

And language doesn’t have to be good at communicating how people do instinctive things, because instinctive actions don’t need to be taught. For example, if I get a scratch on the back of my hand, it heals. Soon my hand will be as good as new. How does my body do that, exactly? What are the steps? I don’t really know. Except that I do, because it’s me doing the healing .. somehow. Outside my conscious awareness.

Stop Acting Like Saying “I Don’t Know” Costs You Twenty Bucks

In our society, people act like saying, “I don’t know” costs them twenty bucks. They’d much rather offer a lame excuse. And once the excuse is uttered, they even tend to believe it themselves. Given what I’ve said above, that makes sense. But it costs us. We tend to fill the world up with nonsense instead of allowing it to be full of miracles.

Even things I know like the back of my hand are pretty mysterious, if you think about it. Because of our partial understanding, we work largely by rules of thumb: beliefs, strategies, routines, habits, and patterns of thought. And that’s okay. The thing about rules of thumb is that, like everything about us, they’re imperfect. Sometimes they’re really excellent (but imperfect), and sometimes they’re really awful (and imperfect). Most are somewhere in between. And hardly any of them work 100% of the time. Hardly any are appropriate in all situations.

Nevertheless, competence exists. So does excellence.

The Four Stages of Competence

Consider the four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious incompetence. You’re lack all competence, but may not even know this. You can neither form accurate evaluations nor accurate intuitions about the topic, and thus your beliefs about it are likely to be random and wrong. My understanding of how to drive a car when I was eight was in this space.
  2. Conscious incompetence.  The fog has cleared. You’ve realized how bad you are, so now you can start doing something about it, including, alas, making the mistakes that are an essential part of progress.
  3. Conscious competence. If you concentrate, you can perform the task competently. Most of us remember this from when we first learned to drive a car.
  4. Unconscious competence. We can perform competently without our full concentration, because the skill has become unconscious and automatic. You can rely on both your intuitions and your analysis on this topic.

So the two biggest hurdles are getting to Stage 2, conscious incompetence, where you learn that you have a lot to learn, and then getting at least a toehold into Stage 3, conscious competence, where you start to make some progress. Things will progress more or less automatically if you keep plugging away at it.

What holds people back? One thing is that, while your conscious mind has trouble hearing what you unconscious mind is thinking, the reverse is not true. All your bogus rationalizations, all your limiting beliefs, all your excuses, have an effect on your unconscious mind, which treats them, if not as gospel, than at least as kinda-sorta true-ish. But that’s enough to cause trouble.

On the other hand, your valid analyses, your empowering beliefs, and your compelling reasons also influence your unconscious mind.

“Whether you think you can’t or you think you can, you’re right.”

Clearly, our task is to nudge our unconscious minds in the right direction. We’ll start by building up some skills consciously, because that’s how we learn. And the first thing we’ll do is consciously back off on our use of “Why?”

Why Not Ask Why?

Okay, you caught me: I’m not actually willing to stop using “why” altogether, and I don’t recommend that you do it either. But here’s the task:

Replace “why” with “how” as often as you can, and see what happens.


There are three cool things about “how” questions:

  1. You learn more. Suppose a friend has just purchased a brand-new car. If you ask, “How did you go about buying that car?” you’ll get the Story Of Buying the Car, and you’ll probably learn something new. If you ask, “Why did you buy that car?” you’ll likely get nothing but a rationalization, and learn next to nothing.
  2. It’s friendlier. Asking “why” often comes across as a moral judgment, putting the other person on the spot. Asking “how” shows interest and implies acceptance.
  3. You usually get the “why” part anyway, as part of the answer to the “how” question. But when tied to the “how” answer, there’s a better context, so you’re likely to hear a better answer, and understand it better, too.

But wait, there’s more! Humans are good at learning from stories, both at the conscious and unconscious levels. So if someone describes a series of events to you, you may take away valuable insights on multiple levels, and you also get to share in the ups and downs of the adventure. On the other hand, if someone just describes their value judgement: “I bought a Porsche and I’m very happy,” there’s almost nothing there. Opinions are the junk food of the mind. Experiences, even vicarious experiences, are far more nourishing.

By the way, by asking “how,” you’re giving people the opportunity to be more interesting than usual. They won’t always deliver, but often they will.

I remember, as a child, being asked, “Why did you do that?” when I was in trouble. And the question usually made my mind go blank. It all seemed very unfair. If I’d been told, “Don’t you dare tell me what happened,” the results would have been about the same. It was a great way of preventing communication.

And that’s the point. Try it for a week. Find a practice buddy. See how often you can turn “why” into “how,” and notice what happens when you do.


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Robert Plamondon
Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. Robert's publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of reprinted classics, including Hypnotherapy of War Neuroses, which covers treating PTSD in veterans. Robert and his wife Karen sell free-range chicken and eggs at the Corvallis farmers' markets. Robert's hypnotherapy office is in downtown Corvallis.

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