I was recently at a presentation by the Samaritans on suicide prevention. They said their volunteers are taught not to ask “why” questions, saying that this makes callers uncomfortable. The same is true for couples. “Why” questions typically make partners uncomfortable, putting them on the defensive.

The reason is most “why” questions are rhetorical. “Why did you do that?” or “Why do you think that way?” are unintentionally critical. The recipient typically becomes defensive—feeling the need to justify their thoughts or behaviors. “Why” questions can also be commanding, e.g., “Why don’t you do it this way?”

It’s more effective is to make statements. “Help me to understand….” is a good lead-in phrase. “Help me to understand your thoughts about….” or “Help me to understand the reason you decided to ….” These are inquiry statements designed to better understand a partner’s thoughts or behaviors.

“I wish….” is another good lead-in phase. “Why don’t you do it this way?’ is judgmental, whereas, “I wish you would do it this way.” is a request. I hope you will give it a try.