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  • Bethany Huebner

Why does asking "Why" cause such a negative response?


clinician to educator

Why do you do what you do? Have you ever been in a conversation with someone you just met, and they ask you that? They start with the standard where do you live and what do you do questions, but quickly land on the why. Does it ever feel like their why question lands like a right cross?


I remember preparing for my PT school interviews with a lovely lady in career services at my undergraduate institution and after she reviewed my essays and applications, she said to me, “Why do you want to go to physical therapy school?” I panicked. Heart rate shot up to 115, sweat began beading at the top of my brow, respiratory rate increased to 25. I didn’t know what to say. I thought, lady you must not have read anything I wrote in my essays because I clearly state why I want to go to PT school in paragraph one. Who was this lady asking me “why do I want to go to PT school???” She was supposed to help me prepare for interviews and she is strangely asking me the question I already answered. I went into major defensive mode. I quickly retorted, “Because I want to help people.” She quickly responded with, “Well, so do the other 450 applicants that applied for the 40 spots at your #1 choice school. Why do you want to go to PT school?” I was in shock. I spent the rest of the counseling session just fuming and not listening. Who was she to question my why and to accuse me of not being unique? Why should I listen to her when she obviously hasn’t ever been accepted to PT school and doesn’t know what it takes? Did she not see my transcript, my letters of recommendation, my hours of observation??? Answering one simple question is not going to be the breaking point for my career, or so I thought.


Fast forward 6 years and I am evaluating 3rd year DPT students in their final musculoskeletal practical exam. This is a make it or break it practical exam for the students where they have to put everything they have learned together. I had a very capable and knowledgeable student for my first exam. She was flowing through the evaluation until one of my questions hit her like a ton of bricks. “Why did you choose that particular special test?” As her examiner, I thought it was a pretty benign question with a pretty easy response. For example, “This test has the best specificity for the diagnosis so I can rule it in.” From the look on the student’s face, it appeared I just asked her to run a marathon with an upper respiratory infection in subzero temperatures. She was red faced, eyes wide open with tears beginning to bud in her eyelids.


Why does the question why, incite such a flight and fight response? Why do we get so defensive when asked why? In my opinion, I think it stems from our childhoods. We constantly get asked about our behavior as we are growing up and usually always it is in an accusatory tone. It is asked to forcefully require you to justify your actions. Why did you pull your sister’s hair? Why don’t you listen to me? Why did you do that? The list goes on and on. The question why has been clouded by so much negativity it is hard to receive the question in any other way. But, in its non accusatory tone of voice form, the question why is meant to spark creativity, uncover motivation, promote discovery, or connect you to your purpose.


Looking back at my undergraduate self in the sweet lady’s career services office, I realized the question why was not coming from a place of accusation, but from a place to promote self-discovery. She just wanted to get to the bottom of why I wanted to be a PT, not what I thought the application reviewers wanted to hear. The major problem and the main reason I did become so defensive was because I honestly didn’t know my why. I knew what everyone around me wanted to say. I knew how to exceed expectations when it came to academic standards. But, I didn’t know how to look inside myself and connect to my values, vision and mission to come up with why I wanted to become a PT. I was uncomfortable being creative and I had a fear that maybe my actual reasoning wasn’t good enough. If I could hide behind why everyone else was doing it, then I wouldn’t have to do the uncomfortable work of self-reflection and self-discovery.


Why is actually a very good question. As I have described before, my son has the question on a constant loop. How can we take the question why and rephrase it in ways to still get to the heart of behavior? How can we use it in the classroom to reveal the student’s thought process? How can we leverage our answer to why do we do what we do to promote growth and motivation? Next week I will reveal some techniques that will help you draw out a person’s why without asking that question. In the meantime, If you want to learn more about how answering the fundamental question “Why” can really be utilized check out Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”


How do you feel about the question why? Why do you do what you do?


If you want to learn more about how to develop your "why," join the rebellion by 2/22/19. Coupon Code for 50%: DRBHUEBNER

Phil and Jenna do a great job diving into how to create your personal why statement and it made a world of difference for me.

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