towards motivationOn entry-level NLP courses, students are often taught not to ask “Why?” when helping someone to solve a problem. And rightly so – human thought processes are very different from mechanical processes like production lines, not least because their workings cannot be directly observed. “Why?” doesn’t make it into NLP’s Meta Model toolkit of questions because the Meta Model is designed to lay bare the structure of problems, whereas “Why?” tends to bring up content.

Techniques like the “5 Whys” process devised by Sakichi Toyoda (of Toyota Motor Corporation fame) are very applicable to diagnosing production problems and mechanical faults. “Why?” is less useful for solving problems where human thoughts, motivations, and feelings are involved, for reasons outlined in an earlier article Three Downsides of the Question “Why?” – it makes people defensive, it disempowers them by focusing on past causes so they feel ‘acted upon’ rather than ‘actors’, and we are mostly unaware of the real reasons why we act anyway.

There are some situations where “Why?” can be a useful question, even in therapy and coaching – as the NLP students eventually (I hope) go on to discover. These are the cases where content is what you are after.

One such situation is finding out more about people’s motivation – specifically, whether their ‘motivation direction’ in a particular context is mainly towards what they want, or away from what they don’t want. Someone whose motivation at work is mainly ‘away from’ (they may enjoy preventing problems, or diagnosing and fixing faults) will need to be managed in a different way from someone primarily motivated ‘towards’ achieving their bonus, or making a positive difference.

Similarly, if someone is motivated primarily ‘towards’ in a buying situation, you won’t ever make the sale by focusing on the problems that buying your product will prevent. You will do much better to make sure they know the possibilities that having your product will open up for them.

So how can you discover if a person’s motivation is towards, away from, or a mixture of the two? This could be useful if, for example, you were helping someone to consider their options for a career choice.

Let’s say you’ve discovered that ‘fairness’ is important to the person (and the process of eliciting someone’s value set deserves a whole article to itself, and will get one at some point soon). How do you find out the motivation direction in this value? One simple question will do it:

“Why is fairness important to you?”

Listen to their answer. They may talk about how fairness leads to a happy workplace, or how it enables people to pull together as a team. This is pretty straightfowardly ‘towards’ (although you also need to calibrate their non-verbals as they are giving you their answer – if they are frowning or their voice sounds strained as they are talking, you may want to explore what they are not saying).

If, on the other hand, they talk about how much they hate unfairness, there’s some obvious ‘away from’ motivation.

Keep asking ‘Why else is fairness important?” until the answers dry up, to get the full picture. You may get a mix of ‘towards’ and ‘away from’, in which case I usually ask the person to estimate the relative percentages around this value.

Watch out for ‘concealed away-froms’, where they person doesn’t explicitly mention anything ‘negative’, but it’s nonetheless there in their thought processes. Here are two give-away patterns in the responses:

    1. Comparisons where the thing being compared to is not mentioned: “It’s better to be fair, isn’t it?” Better than what, you may wonder. Better than being unfair – which is what they are motivated to keep away from.


  1. The other giveaway is where the person invokes a rule, as in “Well, you’ve got to have a level playing field, haven’t you?” Other giveaway words and phrases include ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘ought to’, ‘have to’, ‘it is necessary that’, and so on. These ‘should statements’ (as they call them in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or – jargon alert – ‘Modal Operators of Necessity’ (NLP) are a sign that the person is not operating from a position of choice. Rather, they are motivated to avoid whatever bad consequences they think would happen if the rule were broken.

If you wanted to find out more about their away-from motivation (sometimes this is useful, sometimes not), you could ask “What would happen if you didn’t have a level playing field?”

It’s important to know your own motivation – particularly since away-from motivation leads to inconsistent results for long-term goals (another whole article in itself, which I will write soon). So, for whatever is important to you about your career, your health and fitness or your relationships, you may want to ask yourself “Why is that important to me?” and reflect on your answers.

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For more information about how to discover what really motivates you, how to set effective goals, and how to keep your motivation going, get my book “Achieve Your Goals: Strategies To Transform Your Life (Dorling Kindersley 2006). At the time of writing, it has eleven reviews on, all of them five-star!

The book designers have done an amazing job (except on the cover) and the end result is probably the most accessible and practical NLP-based book ever, packed full of beautiful full-colour illustrations, diagrams, tips, quotations, step-by-step instructions, and case studies.

“Well done Andy – this is a superb book. It is simply the most comprehensive book I have read on goals. It is written with great care and passion, which comes through as you flick the pages and find gem after gem of useful ideas and tools. The result is a highly practical book full to the brim with exercises and insights to help you set and achieve goals. If you are falling short in the achievement department – buy this book and the lights will come on.”

David Molden, author and NLP trainer

In a future article we will explore using “Why?” to uncover limiting belief systems.


When is “Why?” A Useful Question?

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