From Self-Awareness to Self-Improvement: Asking ‘What’ Rather Than ‘Why’
As we’ve written about previously, self-awareness is an important component of emotional intelligence and can help make you a better leader. Being aware of your own strengths, weakness and impact on others can help you take steps towards self-improvement – especially when it comes to addressing your shortcomings.
However, for self-awareness to be an effective path to self-improvement, you need to ensure that you’re asking the right questions when looking in the mirror. If you identify a personal weakness, it may feel natural to ask yourself why you behave in this way, but a much more productive approach is to ask yourself what you can do about it.
The downside of looking within
Engaging in self-reflection can be a healthy part of understanding yourself better, but sometimes it can also bring out your critical inner voice. When that happens, you can become sucked into a destructive pattern of self-criticism that can leave you feeling depressed.
The reality is that most of us are not well equipped to answer the why questions that we pose ourselves. For one thing, our cognitive biases can lead us off track towards false conclusions. This doesn’t mean that why questions are unimportant – it just means you may be better off tackling them with the guidance of a professional who has the training to uncover these answers in a safe and productive way.
Seeking solutions, not elusive answers
Asking yourself why can become a desperate pursuit of elusive answers. Instead, try asking what:
- What can I do to pivot in a positive direction when I feel negative emotions welling up?
- What strategies can I try to minimize my tendency to be confrontational in the workplace?
- What steps can I take to help my team collaborate more effectively?
By focusing on what questions, you are directing your energy towards solutions that can be implemented, tested and tweaked to move you forward in a positive direction. This practical approach to self-awareness can help drive your self-improvement.
Identifying the right time to ask why
While asking why can be counterproductive when you’re self-reflecting, this doesn’t mean you should simply stop asking the question in every context. As with so many things in life, there is a need for nuance.
If we stop asking why altogether, we risk missing opportunities to identify and remedy root causes of problems. The key is to recognise that you’re more likely to uncover useful answers when asking why about the world around you, rather than directing the question at yourself.
Organizational psychologist and researcher Tasha Eurich proposes a rule of thumb for deciding when to ask what versus why: “why questions are generally better to help us understand events in our environment and what questions are generally better to help us understand ourselves”.
So if your company is suddenly losing customers at a rapid pace, by all means ask why and get to the bottom of this situation as quickly as possible. However, if you find yourself regularly missing deadlines at work, you’re better off asking what you can do about it rather than trying to dig into your own psyche to find out why you’re behaving this way.
Progressing on the path of self-improvement
Self-awareness can help you identify personality traits and behaviours that you wish to change or eliminate. While such self-improvement efforts can be positive, focusing on the why behind these traits and behaviours can leave you bogged down with unanswered questions or lead you to false conclusions. In contrast, asking what can help you take action, leading to steps forward in the journey of self-improvement.