When asking questions, it is important not only to settle with the answers given to us, but to constantly expand our understanding by posing the simple but critical follow-up questions: “Who?“, “What?“, “When?“, “Where?“, “How?” And perhaps most importantly, “Why?” The answers to these questions mean that we do not miss contexts that may not be obvious at first glance. The answers will also open up doors for new questions that give us an even deeper understanding. This understanding, stemming from our curiosity, gives us the ability to see patterns and contexts much earlier than others.
The English advertising man and author, Ian Leslie, has in his book Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it pondered on the question “Why?“. Throughout our lives we face a series of situations where we have to negotiate. Often the question is what you get in relation to the counterparty, and in such a situation the most important question is “What?“. This often works well, but sometimes the positions are locked. The question that is not often asked, but which often gives the key to a solution is “Why?“. It is this fundamental question that makes us reflect on the meaning of life and that forces us to constantly test the limits of our knowledge.
Within diplomacy, a deeper understanding of the counterpart’s motives may open up for new innovative solutions. If the question is based on prestige, principles or fundamental values, the opposing party often wants no more material benefits in exchange – and offerings, if any, may even. hit back if they are perceived as believing they can be “bought”.
In his book, Leslie refers to the English star negotiator Jonathan Powell, who, among other things, managed to mediate between the IRA and the Northern Ireland Protestants by gaining a deeper understanding of the driving forces of the locked positions. Often, it’s a matter of pride and being able to get out of a conflict without losing the face.
Leslie also quotes General Stanely McChrystal who led the US efforts in Baghdad: “When we began, the question was” Where is the enemy? “That was the intelligent question. When we became smarter, we began to ask “Who is the enemy?” And we thought we were quite crazy. But then, we realized that it was not the right question so we wondered “What’s the enemy trying to do?”. And it was not until we got farther as we started asking ourselves “Why are they our enemies?”
Thus, with the question “Why?” We try to understand what the other is thinking, which is the basis of all empathy and this simple question enables us to open up spaces of insights that would otherwise remain locked and make the other person start to feel confidence in us.