“I did it again!” Justin lamented as he talked about some bad behavior that he was trying to change. He swore he was going to stop, yet some of his poor reactions seemed to refuse to go away. Permanently stopping conduct that hurts our partner and ourselves is vital, even if it is difficult. Let me tell you about the 5 Whys technique, which can help us get to the source of actions we are trying to change.

Vowing to change should be pretty straightforward, right? We just need to do what we say we are going to do. However, it often does not work because it does not address the deeper, hidden problems that are the real cause. Unattended to, these core issues steer our words and deeds before we even realize what’s happening.

Psychologists tell us that our thoughts determine our emotions, which then drive our actions. When our thoughts are distorted, they can lead us into acting in ways that are not good for others or us. Identifying and challenging these distorted thoughts at the beginning of the thoughts-emotions-actions chain reaction is how we make lasting changes.

It can be difficult to know what those problem thoughts are. That’s where the 5 Whys technique is valuable. It can help us spot flawed thinking, which in turn, changes how we respond to challenging situations.

The Technique

Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota, developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. He wanted a better way to understand what was happening in his manufacturing plant, especially when there was a quality failure. Since then, it has been applied to troubleshooting, problem-solving, and quality-improvement initiatives in many different applications.

The 5 Whys technique a simple yet powerful tool for cutting through the outward symptoms of a problem to reveal its underlying causes. Once the root is known, it can be dealt with it effectively. A counter-measure is then applied to prevent the issue from recurring.

Starting with the problem, the 5 Whys technique asks why it is occurring. When this question is answered, another question is asked about the answer. The process continues—approximately five times—until we reach the root cause of the problem.

Here’s an example from the business world:

Problem: A customer is refusing to pay for an order we shipped to him.

  1. Why is he refusing to pay? The product that we sent was wrong.
  2. Why was the wrong product shipped? The employee that packed the box put in the wrong merchandise.
  3. Why did the employee put in the wrong merchandise? The employee didn’t know the difference between a left widget and a right widget.
  4. Why didn’t they know the difference? They are new and weren’t trained on those small differences.
  5. Why weren’t they trained on it? This topic of training was not part of our standard orientation.

Counter-measure: Add “identifying the difference between a left and right widget” into the new employee training program.

How the 5 Whys Technique Helps Identify Thoughts

Business isn’t the only place where the 5 Whys technique is useful. Rooting out distorted thoughts is an excellent personal application. Whether the questions are a “why” question or some other version, they key is to get curious about our thoughts.

In one of our group sessions, Mary shared how the 5 Whys technique helped her identify and correct some distorted thinking. A few weeks earlier, she “lost it” when her husband decided to go on a weekend fishing trip with three of his childhood guy friends. Mary felt guilty for all of the dirty fighting tactics she used, and she knew her out-of-control verbal barrage had damaged their marriage.

Here’s how the 5 Whys technique helped her recognize the inaccurate thoughts behind her rage:

Problem: Mary became very angry when her husband decided to go on a weekend fishing trip with his friends.

  1. Why was she angry? Mary: “A good husband would never leave his wife to hang out with his buddies.” Note that anger is usually focused on a person or situation that is external to us, and therefore usually something we cannot control. In this case, Mary is focused on her husband’s decision rather than her own emotions.
  2. Is that really true – that a good husband would never leave his wife to hang out with his buddies? Mary: “Well, I guess it makes sense that sometimes even good husbands would go on a guys’ weekend.” By asking the second question, she has uncovered one of her distorted thoughts.
  3. What emotion other than anger did she feel? Mary: “I felt hurt.” This question focuses her on her emotion rather than her husband’s action. Now we are getting closer to the source of, and the cure for, her over-sized anger.
  4. Why did she feel hurt? Mary: “I felt left out, like my husband did not want to be with me.” Notice how asking another question about the answer to the last question is helping her go deeper into her thoughts and emotions.
  5. Does your husband usually spend time with you or act like he values you? Mary: “He’s usually pretty good about spending time with me and appreciating me.”
  6. Why else might he have decided to go on the fishing trip, other than not wanting to be with her? Mary: “He really values his relationship with his boyhood friends.” Mary was starting to see her partner’s behavior in a different, less personal light.

Counter-measure: Next time Mary’s husband chose to spend time apart from her, she could avoid interpreting it as a personal rejection. Instead, she could remember the times he does spend with her as a way to balance her negative thoughts. Thinking about his decision or similar circumstances this way would not feel as bad. She would not feel the need to change his mind or control him by attacking him with her words.

Tips for Using the 5 Whys Technique

The 5 Whys technique is a strategy for getting curious about and going deeper into your thoughts and emotions. There’s no rule that says we have to ask “Why?” five times—it’s just a guideline to encourage us to continue probing more deeply. In some cases, you may need to ask “Why?” a few times more than five; in other cases, fewer than five will do.

What’s important is to not stop asking “Why?” until you stop producing useful insights. A challenge to our distorted thinking should then become evident. Once we realize our faulty thinking and correct it, we are less likely to have those skewed thoughts again. As we practice and repeat this process, our excessive reactions to the same or similar situations begins to subside.

As we saw in Mary’s example above, there could be several thoughts that cause us problems. Each may have its own appropriate counter-measure. Uncovering more than one unhelpful thought at a time is a bonus!

As you work through your chain of questions, you may find that an answer focuses on someone else’s failure. Rather than blaming them, ask yourself why you reacted to them the way that you did. This helps us develop healthy, positive ways to respond to others, even when we have an imperfect or difficult partner.

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