During a recent busy day in London I had the chance to leave the office, get some fresh air (well, as fresh and nitrogen dioxide-free as it can be around Threadneedle Street) and pick up some lunch.

So, resolution-affirming healthy salad and calorie-laden desert in hand, I found myself queuing in a well-known food chain, contemplating plans for the afternoon’s meetings, including one where a colleague was planning to present a course of action that could bring some future challenges to our project. These musings were interrupted by the sound of crashing display stands and scattering produce.

It’s a sign of the times that my first reaction was to wonder if I needed to reach for my phone and load the CitizenAid app, but I soon realised that the cause of the alarm was a less regime-changing fallen sweet display stand and a very defiant-looking 10-year old.

As I watched the ensuing mini-drama with detached relief, it reminded me of some of the soft-skills training that we benefitted from in the ‘90s. (This was a time before corporate spend needed to produce a very measurable, clear and immediate return on investment before it could be authorised.)

The thing that caught my attention was a reminder of how useful, informative, risky and unhelpful it can be to use the simple question ‘WHY?’.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapsing shelf it was clear that the mother’s objective was to admonish her child, cover her embarrassment, limit the effects of the damage, and move on as quickly as possible.  The reflex-reaction question that she used to achieve all these objectives was: “Oh, Joshua, why did you do that…?”

Although it happened in milliseconds, Joshua’s brain had time to delve into his memory of the lead-up to the action, work out what prompted him to act and justify that it was in fact the most sensible and reasonable thing to do in the circumstances.

His rather articulate and measured response was:

Oh mummy I was just doing what you asked me to… When we were getting in the car you told me you were very busy today and we didn’t have much time, so you asked me to remind you that we needed to buy something to take as a present for Ardiana’s birthday party. I saw the large Jelly bean tube on the shelf but it was the last one. I tried twice to ask you if it was a good idea but you were talking to that man about his sandwich. You weren’t listening and the queue was moving. If I’d waited, then we would have lost our place in the queue and someone else might have bought the beans. I tried to reach them to save you time so we wouldn’t be late again picking up Miles from the nanny. If you had listened to me I wouldn’t have had to reach so high and we’d have saved lots of time…”

Her simple ‘Why’ produced a veritable catalogue of sound reasons, none of which she could argue with. The effect was to deflate her completely, and the rest of the queuing customers seemed to unite in knowing, wry smiles. Well done Joshua!

By asking ‘Why’ his mother had effectively forced Joshua to consolidate and strengthen all the reasons why he had done what he had done. The question reinforced in his mind that it was all his mother’s fault! Not what she had been trying to achieve...

This logic applies equally well to conversations in the adult world.  Many times, a financial adviser and a client will need to discuss what existing provision the client has, and the question ‘Why did you take that out?’ is a possible strategy; but is this the most helpful question for both parties?

To answer, the client needs to emulate Joshua’s process, i.e. ‘delve into their memory of the lead-up to the action, work out what prompted them to act and justify that it was in fact the most sensible and reasonable thing to do in the circumstances’.

This can have an effect that benefits neither party. The client has now confirmed that they made some good choices and therefore don’t really need to make changes, and the adviser is now entering the realm of having to handle objections to his or her suggestions.

Maybe it’s worth thinking of some more useful questions, such as “What objectives were you hoping to achieve?” and “Does what you have done so far fully meet those objectives?”

Thinking back to my afternoon meeting, I realised that I needed to be very careful before asking attendees ‘Why’ they believed that their proposal was so much better than other proposals – it was giving them the green light to add layer upon layer of reasons…

Thanks Joshua, for reminding me that revisiting and developing currently out-of-fashion soft skills may actually benefit my projects and the way I work with my colleagues.