In an astonishing number of situations, knowing the “why” – why someone did what they did - is what helps us make meaning, be motivated, transform our assumptions, or open our hearts. At the same time, the “why” question – “why did you do that?” - is often the most difficult to hear, leading us to defensiveness and contraction. Both parts of this paradox have clear reasons (their own “why,” if you will). Once we know them, we can find ways to support ourselves and others in knowing the “why” that are less taxing for all.
Why “Why” Matters
For myself, understanding the “why” is the fundamental bridge between me and another. When I see another person’s action, decision, or choice, or hear their request of me, and I don’t know the “why” – either by being told, or by managing to imagine it effectively enough – a gap forms within me, made up of lack of understanding. The gap may be tiny and temporary, or it may be the beginning of growing and ongoing mistrust. This gap is likely bigger and lasts longer the less the other person’s movements align with my own preferences.
I have heard similar themes often enough to trust that in this particular way I am not that different from others. Just think of the last time someone didn’t show up at the time you expected them and you were irritated, then you found out the why and the irritation disappeared. Without knowing, we tend to fill in the gap of understanding by providing our own “why,” creating our own stories about what someone’s behavior means.
This is where our historical legacy can backfire. Only few of us, as far as I can tell, are truly able to live the assumption of innocence in its fullness. As a result, when we don’t like what someone else does, many of us are prone to coming up with explanations that dehumanize the other person: “She set me up to suffer because she is sadistic” or “He only did this for the sake of having more power” or “This decision came from left field; they don’t know how to plan anything.”
On the other hand, when we do hear the why, something changes magically. I’ve been in rooms where employees heard, for the first time, why a certain decision was made by a boss, and noticed the power of the shift that ensued. I’ve seen people receive a request and tense up only to relax into a comfortable “yes” when they understood why the request was made in the first place. It only works when the reason makes sense and allows us to see the emotional logic. Then we can plant ourselves in the shoes of the other person even if we disagree. This is a clear example of the immense power of empathy, and the distance we still, collectively, must walk to inhabit a spontaneously empathic response to life.