Promote inquiry by asking “why”


“I talk a lot less than I used to. I still talk too much, and I work on this every single day. A mentor of mine once told me, “You stop at the first question. Keep asking ‘why,’ and then ask again, and then ask again, because you’re not going to get remotely close to the truth unless you keep asking questions.” He would literally say, “Ask ‘why’ six times.”” —Dottie Mattison: Talk Less, but Ask ‘Why’ More

A consistent theme in these essays over the past several years has been the importance of deep versus superficial understanding.

Pairing “exquisite listening” with the kind of inquiry suggested by Dottie Mattison is a powerful means of developing understanding of important problems and issues and of strengthening relationships.

Asking “why” five times (sometimes called “the 5 whys”) or six times, as Mattison’s mentor suggested, is a means of helping individuals and groups explore in deeper and richer ways their own beliefs, values, and understandings.

It is also a way to better understand the root causes of problems that may be only superficially understood.

When have you used the “5 whys” or other methods of deep inquiry and with what results?

6 Responses to “Promote inquiry by asking “why””

  1. 1 Bob Jackson May 11, 2016 at 7:05 am

    Classrooms Built On Questions – Using Knowledge Building to promote deep understanding is a pedagogy that is really showing promise on this front. Think of this Now find out more about Knowledge Building out to the University of Toronto at

  2. 3 Joellen May 11, 2016 at 8:09 am

    Sometimes, though in our haste, the questions become our preferred interpretation or answer and not the root cause.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks May 11, 2016 at 8:48 am

      Our assumptions—what we hold to be true—do have a powerful influence on what we observe and the conclusions we draw from those observations. Which underscores why it is essential to use multiple sources of evidence when inquiring deeply into the causes of a problem and identifying potential solutions. Thanks, Joellen, for helping us think more deeply about this process…

  3. 5 Wanda Dean May 16, 2016 at 6:51 am

    Love the idea. I have not used it but will in a class I am teaching next month Thank you.

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