Why the Five Whys?

When I was a kid, my favorite question to ask was ‘why’. Why? I don’t know why. See what I did there? *Crickets* (Note to self: stop using that joke). 

Seriously though, as peer recovery specialists, we are engaged in a noble mission: support those who can’t support themselves until they can. What a mission! And, like any good professional, we want to succeed and make an impact because, in our line of work, impact = changed lives. 

Sometimes, however, we get stuck. We don’t know what to say in some conversations. And, in some situations, that is perfectly ok. Listening is a prize skill and highly valued and absolutely essential in peer support. What happens, however, when it would be beneficial to the peer we are supporting to be able to coax them into a deeper state of self-reflection and encourage them to consider adopting a ‘troubleshooting’ mindset to make the changes they so desperately wish to make in their lives. 

One answer: Toyota. Now, at face value, you may be thinking: what does a car have to do with this and, in particular, what does Toyota have to do with this? I am glad you asked. 

In the 1980’s Toyota management adopted a quality control philosophy called “The Five Whys”. What did it consist of? Our good friends at Wikipedia explain it like this:

“Five whys (or 5 whys) is an iterative (repetitive) interrogation technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.[1] The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?” five times. The answer to the fifth ‘why’ should reveal the root cause of the problem.[2] The technique was described by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota Motor Corporation.”

How can this relate to peer support? Quite simply: posing the question ‘why’ five times in a support conversation with a peer. Now. We do not want to be, shall we say, overbearing or obnoxious like a suspect being berated in a 1950’s detective film wherein there’s a bright light shining in their eyes and the officer is shouting “where were you last Saturday night?!?”. Not. Effective. 

We can even change up the wording and get the same results. For example, the first prompt/response might be just using the word ‘why’. The second prompt/response might be “I wonder why that is or was.” The third might be ‘you know that makes me ask the question ‘why did it happen that way instead of this way?” The fourth prompt/response might return to the simple use of the word ‘why’. The last response could be “I know it seems weird that we keep asking ‘why’ this or that but I think you are very close to finding the answer you are looking for.” 

Of course, nothing is foolproof and there are exceptions to every conversation and we are always called to use our best judgment in providing uplifting and peer-centered conversational support. Words are powerful so it is our solemn duty to use them carefully. 

Next time you provide peer support, give it a try. Why? Because I said so, that’s why! See what I did there? *Crickets*

~ Chris Newcomb


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