The facilitator throws out a writing prompt, and we scribble furiously for five minutes.
“Ok, time!”, she announces.
I’m sitting on a yoga mat somewhere in Portland, Oregon - taking a writing course. Some are balancing notebooks on their knees; others are lying on their bellies.
Few people are still scribbling. “Gimme jazz hands, everyone! Let’s see them all in the air.” Twenty people raise their arms and do “jazz hands” to demonstrate that they are no longer writing.
“We are going to use the same prompt, and we are going to write again”, the facilitator continues, “but this time around, I want you to ask yourself a question. Ready?”
“What is the story underneath the story?”
“We will do this once”, she continues, “but when you have some time, ask yourself that question three, four, five times in a row. I know that for me, the first response is complete garbage - a story that I made up - something that sounds reasonable, but is completely false. It is not until I keep digging that I arrive at the actual truth.”
The story underneath the story.
The question behind the question.
The thing before the thing.
In coaching, a similar exercise is called “The Five Whys”.
Ask a question, and once you get a response, ask why.
Then ask why again. And again.
Five times in a row.
It can be annoying or unsettling or illuminating or all of the above. The surface answer is easy, quick. But the answers that follow can be surprising even to the answerer herself.
I use this tool with a new client.
“It might feel a little silly or even forced”, I remind her. “But humour me.”
Me: “Why are you here?”[WHY #1]
Her: “I want to become a better coach.”
Me: “Why do you want to become a better coach?” [WHY #2]
Her: “If I become a better coach, I would be able to help more people get better results and keep clients for longer.”
Me: “Why do you want to be able to help more people get better results and keep clients for longer?”[WHY #3]
Her: “If I get better results for clients and retain them, I would be making more money.”
Me: “And why do you want to be making more money?” [WHY #4]
Her: “If I make more money, I would have more freedom, I would be able to do things without worrying about money.”
Me: “And why do you want to have more freedom?”[WHY #5]
Her: “Because I would have more choices in life, I would have more confidence and have more belief in myself.”
This client just went from wanting to become a better coach to wanting to have more confidence and more belief in herself. A very specific goal now has a global and universal appeal. It ties into this person’s life vision.
If you want to find yourself on the receiving end of this particular mind-fuckery along with many other tools of tortu… I mean, self-improvement.
If you want to try this tool with a friend or a client, keep these two strategies in mind:
#1 - Ask full questions.
Don’t just ask “why?”, “why?”, “why?”. Incorporate the statements from the previous answer (like I did in the example above). This makes the questions easier to answer, and makes the conversation sound much more natural, as the actual “why” blends with the rest of the sentence.
#2 - Notice and name the discomfort.
Call it out. Forewarn your conversation partner that you are about to do something that may sound strange, and would they please go along with it?
You can even use the following script:“Hey, I want to try something here. I want to help you arrive at some of the deeper motivations for the change you seek, and there is this exercise that can help. I will ask the same question five times in a row, and I’d like you to do your best to answer. Are you game?”