Want Cooperation? Try the “Why” Technique

I began my career working for a large telecommunications corporation (at that time known as “the phone company”).  In those early years I was a telephone repair technician.   I spent a good deal of my time working on what were called Special Inspects, which meant trying to solve intermittent problems for very irate customers.  Most of my coworkers wouldn’t have had my job for the world, but I loved it.  Why?  I had a secret.  I discovered early on that because customers had no idea how a telephone worked, clearly and simply explaining basic telephony — including why their phone was acting up — often defused even the angriest customers.

It was my success with these “kid glove” customers that called attention to my communication skills and soon opened the door to a management position.  Over the years I’ve used this Why Technique countless times in a variety of customer, employee, and even personal interactions.  Though the situations were all different, the results are almost always the same — positive cooperation.

Why is “Why” So Important?:

When we’re told why things aren’t as we expect, we understand the bigger picture, and that understanding has a great claming affect — it’s that simple.  On the other hand, when we’re not told why, we feel uneasy, defensive, even angry,  simply because whatever it is we’re concerned about remains an unknown.   In some cases, we also become suspicious that the truth is being hidden from us. 

As you read the following sentences, imagine they are being told to you and they are all the information you’re given:

            Your car needs five hundred dollars worth of work.

            You’re not going to make the return on your investment you’d hoped for.

            Our company is downsizing and your department is at risk.

            Your child got suspended from school today.

            Your gas bill is about to go up 10 percent.

            Your performance isn’t up to par.

How do they make you feel?  Uneasy?  Defensive? Angry?  Suspicious?  If so, your not alone.  Obviously, there’s no way to make these kinds of statements into good news, but see if the following Why Technique versions are a little easier to take:

            Your car needs five hundred dollars worth of work.

The seals in your transmission have hardened with time and are now

leaking.  If we don’t replace them, your transmission will eventually

go out.  In order to make the replacements, we need to discontent the

transmission  from the drive train and dismantle it.  The job will take

about six hours.        


            You’re not going to make the return on your investment you’d hoped for.        

            The stock market has gone through several corrections this year and

it hasn’t recovered yet.  Corrections of this kind are very normal in a

healthy stock market so there’s no need to be too concerned.


            Our company is downsizing and your department is at risk.

            More and more small competitors are stealing our market share.  Because

they’re small, they can undercut our prices.  They can also act more quickly

than we can.  We have to shrink to be competitive. We have no other choice

if  we want to stay in business, and we’ve trimmed in every other area we

can possibly manage. 


            Your child got suspended from school today.

Your daughter was caught for the third time cheating on exams.  We feel

She will only learn a strong lesson by taking responsibility for her actions.

We also feel it’s unfair to the students who are studying diligently to make

high scores. 


            Your gas bill is about to go up 10 percent.

You may not realize it, but we have to buy the gas we provide to your home. 

Natural gas prices have skyrocketed over the past year and we’ve done

everything we possibly can to keep from raising our rates.  As much as we

dislike it, we have no choice but to pass this increase on to our customers.


            Your performance isn’t up to par.

It’s your productivity that concerns us and it seems to be due to a

lack of effort and basic job skills.  Other employees in your position

have a productivity factor of .99.  Your factor is 1.4.  We feel with some

effort on your part, some additional training and supervisory support,

you can bring your factor into line within the next few months.


Better?  A little less distressing?  As I said, the Why Technique can’t make bad news into good, but it can definitely reduce the uneasiness and anger that often accompanies it.  If you agree, try using the Why Technique at work, in situations like the following:

                        When explaining company changes

                        When explaining departmental changes

                        In employee performance review meetings

                        In conversations with customers about service outages

                        In conversations with customers about product deficiencies

When giving bad news to the boss

Not an Excuse:

Keep in mind that the Why Technique should not be used an excuse.  The best course of action when you’ve goofed is simply to own up to your mistake.  But explaining why you made the mistake can have two positive effects.  First it informs, let’s say, your boss or an irate customer of the big picture, which, as I’ve said has a calming affect.  Second, if you follow the Why Technique with a positive solution to the problem, it shows you have a clear understanding of the issue and a means to resolve it.  Nothing is more irritating to a boss or customer than someone who’s made a mistake but “just doesn’t get it.”

On the Home Front:

The Why Technique can also be very useful in your person life.  Your children will be much more apt to go along with your curfews, restrictions and other rules if they understand why you’ve imposed them.  The same holds true for your spouse when you’ve taken some action he or she may not agree with.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask For it:

If you happen to be on the receiving end of questionable news, don’t be afraid to ask for the Why Technique.  In sales situations — especially large ones — you should understand why the contract reads as it does, why your paying a certain price and why any part of the sales agreement isn’t up to your expectations.  If the person you’re dealing with isn’t forthcoming with the “why”,  or of they make you feel “stupid” for asking, chances are you’re better off spending your hard earned dollars in a more open sales environment.

The Bottom Line “Why”:

When you tell people why,  you place them at ease simply by removing the unknown.  It’s obvious how invaluable this can be in customer interactions – especially those that aren’t going so well.   You also open the door to logical, constructive input from those who surround — your employees and family members in particular — because they will be much more likely to contribute when you’ve taken the time to make them understand…why


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