What Happens When We Assume Why

In his book entitled Start with Why, Simon Sinek sets out some helpful observations about the power of “why.” He argues that a compelling “why” inspires by articulating a clear purpose…it is not a description of what is done, but the deeper, more emotive reason for doing it. Answering the question “why” draws people in…it connects them on an emotional level and moves them to respond. As Sinek says, “Great leaders are those who trust their gut. They are those who understand the art before the science. They win hearts before minds. They are the ones who start with WHY.”

While I appreciate Sinek’s work and agree that starting with why is an important leadership practice, sadly, the power of why can also be divisive and destructive. Just as “why” inspires people to follow a compelling vision, it can also inspire people to fear, condemn, or otherwise stand against those whose actions are deemed to be motivated by less-than noble “why’s.” Often, these “why’s” (the core purpose that lies behind individual or group behavior) is not made explicit by the individual or group performing a particular action, but assumed by other individuals or groups who (generally) disagree with that action.

Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the various “why’s” I encounter. As I have done so, I have come to believe that there are times when the power of why is wielded carelessly, particularly when we seek to determine the unstated “why” of others. We see what they have done or said, run their actions or words through our own mental filters, and come to a conclusion about their motives and purpose. We create an assumed “why.”

We begin to represent our perspective as fact…as if we have some special insight that allows us to articulate what is going on in someone’s mind and heart even if they don’t or can’t articulate their motives themselves. By starting with why in analyzing the behavior of others we run the risk of assigning motives to them that don’t really represent the fullness of the situation in question.

More often than not we know “what” and assume “why.” We observe speech and behavior…not motives. When someone doesn’t articulate why they are doing something, we really know what is happening…not why it is happening.

For example, take the reactions to Lauren Daigle, a Christian musician, who created a stir with her comments regarding homosexuality. While there were certainly a mix of sentiments offered about Daigle’s statements, there were many on social media that assigned to her less-than stellar motives…particularly, there were several individuals who suggested that her comments were an attempt to safeguard her career even if that meant misrepresenting the truth or abandoning her faith.

The assumed “why” in Daigle’s case was one motivated by money, fame, and career, which overshadowed her commitment to the Scriptures. She never explicitly noted this as her motive…it was just ascribed to her.

Assuming “why’s” adds an interpretive layer to the bald facts of a matter that too often precludes or hinders different understandings. The facts can no longer be construed in any other way. Assumed “why’s” are also frequently uninformed “why’s” offered by interpreters who don’t know the people they are interpreting well.

So, “why” isn’t always beneficial, particularly when used as a tool to understand someone else’s motivations in an uninformed manner. Assumed “why’s” can be divisive and, to some degree, cruel. They also close us off from really understanding others…from listening to them, hearing their perspectives, and engaging in more than knee-jerk dialogue.

How can we avoid assigning motives to others? What might it look like for us to stop assuming “why”? I’ll offer three suggestions:

Be honest about what you don’t know

Forming opinions about others on the basis of partial information is, to one degree or another, just part of life. We never know everything. The question is whether we are willing to recognize that we don’t have all the information and to leave room for the unknown to change the way we see an individual or group. Demanding of one another that we have sufficient information to really form an opinion would help all of us from making interpretive leaps we really shouldn’t be making…telling stories that ring true but don’t take into account enough of what is really happening to represent reality truthfully.

Learn to separate observation from interpretation

Making observations isn’t easy. In some ways, we are all interpreters making judgments about the various behaviors and events we witness or filling in gaps with our own knowledge and experiences. Observing means that we suspend our imaginations and look at only what is actually there to see. Interpretation generally involves coming up with conclusions (sometimes provisional) based only on the information we have. Limiting ourselves to observations keeps us open to (even wanting) new information.

Make your default “why” the most generous “why”

As hard as we try to observe and report, it’s unlikely that we will be able to keep from thinking about the motivations behind an action or behavior. Even if we can’t avoid thinking about someone else’s “why,” we can try to avoid assigning the most negative motive possible. Instead, we can fight to consider the most generous “why” possible. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and putting the most positive spin on their behavior allows us to remain open to them in a way that a more accusatory “why” doesn’t.

In the end, figuring out someone’s “why” is important. It’s just not always easy. We see the what, but assume the why…we assign motives even when they are not made explicit. Assumed “why’s” are often lazy and critical…so if you truly care about the person or are concerned about a behavior, do the harder work of finding an informed why.

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