A well-worn Post-it displaying "WHY" with a circle around it and line through it was hanging from my colleague Pam's monitor. She is respected for her fair, objective approach and is considered by subordinates and peers to be professional, composed and accomplished.

When I interviewed her about her stress management techniques, she noted that when she took a break from asking why, she reduced her stress significantly. Here are her tips on how (and why) to take a break from asking why.

Know your limits

As an experienced front-line supervisor with years of balancing customer needs and staff requirements, Pam realized early on she could only control so much of who walked through the door and how they reacted. So, she created the habit of tabling all why questions until the weekly meeting.

Until then, the team lists any frustrating why questions as they arise but do not try to answer them until the meeting. Then, they revisit the list to determine if it is a question worth answering; if it is, they tackle it together.

Pam found this helped in three ways:

  • Creating a place to capture frustrating situations, she and her team knew the underlying issues would be addressed, freeing them to focus on addressing the customer's immediate need.
  • Giving a little time between the frustrating event and the time to solve the bigger problem, employees were calmer and able to be more objective.
  • Having different perspectives available to support, brainstorm and address the question of why often led to better solutions.

Pick your battles

Not all of us manage teams or customers, so I pushed Pam on whether her method could be applied to peers and bosses. She laughed and acknowledged that exasperating interactions with a previous CEO were the impetus to creating the Post-it.

Like many of us, Pam reported to a leader who had limitations in areas in which she had strengths. While that can create a dynamic environment for solving problems, it can also be exceedingly frustrating when it limits our ability to accomplish things the way we feel is appropriate. Further, sometimes our leaders use their prerogative to enforce an approach with which we disagree.

In both cases, Pam suggests not to ask why. She admits it was tough at first, which was why she created the Post-it reminder. Now when she looks at it, the visual forces her to pause briefly enough to consider whether she really can, needs to or should ask why.

If she feels strongly that she needs an answer, she forces herself to write it down, schedule a time in the future to answer it and lets it go until then. In addition to giving her enough of a break to approach the question with a more objective perspective, Pam has found that most of the time she no longer needs or wants the answer and just moves on.

The bottom line

Finding the answers to our why questions may help us create long-term solutions to many problems. However, if we pause to give ourselves time to take a break from asking why until we are less frustrated, we may find we do not really need the answer. If it turns out we do, we can come up with more objective, thoughtful solutions.

In both cases, taking a break from asking why helps.