Every event has some series of events that come before it, some even causative. The 5 Whys is a popular tool, developed Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota, used to attempt to understand the “root cause” of a problem. One asks, “Why?”, answers it, then asks “why?” again, iteratively five times. 

Sometimes it can be helpful. It is a prompt to stop and reflect on cause. Giving yourself time, where you hadn’t before is often enough to discover an issue or come to a better understanding.

However, it can also be problematic. As a therapist, one of the worst questions I can ask is “Why?”. It assumes that a person can directly know the reason something has occurred. Were I to ask it, the response should be, “I have no idea, that’s why I’m coming to you!”

As another example, let’s say you’re having a conversation with a neighbor. They tell you about their teenage son staying out late, and how they ended up yelling at them.  Were I to ask either why it happened, one might say, “because he’s a selfish teenager trying to piss me off” and the other might say, “because he’s a jerk on a power trip.” 

Either answer relies on labels, a common response to anger, which leads to very little further inquiry.

When “Why” does not work, it is often useful to reflect on association instead.

What is an association? Essentially, whenever you have something on your mind, and something else comes to mind, that something else is a potential association. 

In the example of the neighbor discussion, perhaps the parent’s story reminds you of something, perhaps a similar experience. That is an association. Paying attention to it tends to yield a more complex set of information.

Expanding on the scenario here, what comes to mind might be a memory of yourself in the role of the teenager, in the role of the parent, or both, accompanied by feelings of fear, worry, and more. In addition, you might feel more connected to your neighbor or more distant. 

Any and all of these are associations. Any aspect can be reflected on to understand the details of the story. What went wrong where; how the individual parties feel; how to best address concerns for the future—all can be considered in their own time.

Maybe I suddenly remember my own going out and getting in trouble when I’d returned from the bowling alley reeking of cigarette smoke. I remember how much fun I had hanging out with friends. I got to talk to a girl I liked. 

And suddenly, “Aha!” – maybe he was going out for a reason. You can ask, “What were you looking forward to in going out?” “Is there something that makes it difficult to talk about that?”

You could argue, “Why did you go out?” is the same question, but it’s not. Depending on the situation, “Why” can be far too general and easily hijacked by shame, anger, or other negative feelings to divert answers elsewhere.

A gentler, reflective approach often better allows for an acknowledgement of the emotions as well as one’s own experience, be that for a family squabble or a seemingly entrenched work project.