In my training as a psychologist, I was taught not to ask ‘why’. The reason I was given was that the question could be perceived as judgemental, and when a person feels judged, they may close off or become disingenuous.
Despite my training, I often ask the question, not because I am judging someone, but because I want to know the casual link they have made in their minds between two events. The way that we assign cause is important in understanding how we will spend our problem-solving resources.
There is rarely a definitive right or wrong with what causes something. Cause is a highly abstract and culturally variable relation. Consider this scenario:
A child drops the ceramic bowl she is holding, and it shatters on the floor.
What caused the bowl to shatter?
The obvious answer is the child dropping the bowl. It is a visible link. But let’s dive deeper.
What cause the child to drop the bowl? Was it fatigue? Inattention? Defiance? The weight of the bowl might have been too heavy? Any of these can go towards explaining why the bowl shattered.
Some might consider the relationships around the child. Was there someone watching the child? Did she need guidance? Did someone draw the child’s attention away from the task?
Furthermore, we can even consider the properties of the bowl. Had it been plastic instead of ceramic, then it would not have shattered; the bowl being ceramic was also a cause for it shattering.
If we get philosophical about this, there’s no end to the rabbit hole of causes. What guides our behaviour is the cause that we assign to the event. If we think the child dropped the bowl, then we will try to rectify the child. If we believe that the child should have been under supervision, then we will try to rectify the supervisor. If we see ceramic bowls as being liable to break around children, we may change the bowls children have access to.
Frustration and hopelessness can develop if we rigidly assign causes, and then fight for the causes we have assigned. The most effective interventions are ones that consider multiple causes without attaching to any single cause. This approach allows for fluidity in problem solving; if one method doesn’t work, then we can move on to the next approach.
In every day life, we can be more aware and flexible in the causes we assign by simply brainstorming possible reasons or causes for why things occur. The goal of this is not to avoid dealing with issues that arise, but to engage in the ‘why’ without being trapped by it.