ONE SIMPLE TOOL TO HELP YOU COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR SPOUSE
Aaron & April Jacob
“He never takes me on dates.”
Michelle was talking to her sister on the phone, frustrated, and in despair. She was feeling a bit lonely and forgotten in her marriage, and she didn’t know what to do.
Her sister Mia, older and wiser, asked her a few questions to try to understand Michelle’s thoughts and feelings better.
“Why do you want Mark to take you on dates?” Mia asked.
“Well, that is what happily married couples, do. Right? And I see all my friends posting pictures of their fun dates and I wish we did fun stuff like they do.” Michelle responded.
“Why is doing fun stuff so important to you? Do you want to spend time with Mark or do you want to have something to post to social media?” Mia pried.
“I guess a little of both,” Michelle said.
“Why is it that Mark doesn’t take you on dates?” Mia continued.
“I think he doesn’t care. He just seems so clueless.” Michelle said.
“Why do you think he doesn’t care?” Mia asked.
“I don’t know, maybe because his parents were divorced and he didn’t see his dad take anyone on dates.” Michelle said, a bit humbled by her response.
“Why don’t you talk to Mark about your feelings and see if you two can figure this out?” Mia encouraged. Mia then explained a method she had been using with Michelle called The Five Levels of Why, and she encouraged Michelle to use the same method when she talked to Mark.
The Five Levels of Why
The Five Levels of Why is a method Sakichi Toyoda came up with and it was originally used at the Toyota Motor Corporation (here).
The gist of the method is to repeat the question “Why” five times until you get to the root cause of the problem or process and are then able to begin asking “How” questions in order to find a proper solution.
An example from Wikipedia explains how the methodology works with the example of a car that won’t start.
“The vehicle will not start. (The problem)
1. Why? – The battery is dead. (First why)
2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)” (here)
Mia had learned about this method in a business class she had taken a decade ago, and had been using it in her marriage for that same length of time. It seemed to help her and her husband understand their annoyances, frustrations, and conflicts better, and to find solutions that actually worked to solve their problems.
Using the example above, Mia thought that perhaps Michelle & Mark’s Five Levels of Why conversation would look like the following:
The marriage is struggling. (The problem)
1. Why? The couple doesn’t go on dates. (First why)
2. Why? The husband doesn’t ask the wife on dates. (Second why)
3. Why? The husband didn’t know he was supposed to ask the wife on dates. (Third why)
4. Why? The husband never saw his dad ask anyone on dates. (Fourth why)
5. Why? The wife never communicated the expectation that she wanted to go on dates and that she expected the husband to ask her on dates. (Fifth why)
Mia knew that breaking down problems into “Why” questions always set couples up for success in asking “How” questions in order to find solutions. If both Mark & Michelle knew that date night was important and expected, then they could start working to find a solution and a process that would work for them in order to make date night happen.
However, relationships are always a bit more complex than the above example and Mia didn’t realize that Mark & Michelle’s 5 Levels of Why would take a different spin.
Michelle was feeling better after talking to Mia and was grateful that her sister was willing to listen to her without judging her. She liked the idea of asking the question “Why” five times to try to get to the root of the problem.
She decided to talk to Mark about her frustrations that night, after dinner.
Mark was putting dishes in the dishwasher when Michelle sat next to him on the counter. She said, “I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated about something and I wanted to see if we could figure this out together.”
Mark, in his usual happy manner, said, “Sure. What’s bothering you?”
Michelle said, “First, I want to try something that Mia taught me called The Five Levels of Why. It is a method that helps people get to the root cause of their problems so they can figure out what to do about it. You are simply supposed to ask the question ‘Why’ five times (or more if needed) until you feel like you understand the real problem you are dealing with.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Mark said. “I’ll only go along with it if I can ask you ‘Why’ questions, too.”
“Deal,” Michelle said, then she asked her first why question,
“Why do you never take me on dates?”
Mark, feeling a bit attacked and taken back, retorted jokingly with “Why do you never take me on dates?”
Michelle then said, “Why would you expect me to take you on dates?” And Mark responded by saying, “Why do you expect me to take you on dates?” He was feeling a bit frustrated.
This 5 Levels of Why thing wasn’t working very well. Michelle thought for a moment and then she said,
“Well, in my family, my dad always asked my mom out on dates and they went out almost every Friday. I see posts of my friends going on dates with their spouses and I guess I just wish we went on regular dates.”
Mark decided to try and put his ego aside in order to try and understand his wife and to hopefully help her understand him, too.
He said, “Well, I never knew dates were important to you. I just figured we spend so much time together every night that we don’t need to go on official dates.”
Mark then asked Michelle, “Why is it so important to you that we go on dates?”
Michelle thought for a minute and said, “I think there are a few reasons. I think dates are important for keeping a relationship healthy, they change things up, keep things fun, and they are kind of romantic. I think dates would be good for us.”
In that last sentence, Mark sensed that there was a deeper reason to this date thing so he asked, “Why would dates be ‘good for us’?”
Michelle said, “I think they would help me feel more secure in our relationship, help me feel like you care enough about our marriage to plan dates, and make me feel like you want to spend time with me.”
“Oh,” Mark responded, feeling like this was going deeper than he would have preferred in the moment. It would have been easier to have simply responded to Michelle’s first “Why” question with a simple, “Okay, you want dates? We’ll go on a date on Friday,” and then he could have been done with this conversation, but Mark was realizing that they were actually getting somewhere with this conversation and they weren’t fighting. So he asked another “Why” question.
“Why do you feel like I don’t care about our relationship or don’t want to spend time with you?”
Michelle realized that Mark was the one using The Five Levels of Why on her, but she was okay with it – they were actually talking about feelings now, and that was something they didn’t do often enough, she thought.
“I guess I feel like you and I often spend time together but we are never doing things together. You’re on your phone and I’m always reading a book or perusing Pinterest. I just feel like you don’t really even notice I’m sitting there next to you. You never talk to me or ask me questions about my day. It makes me feel like you don’t care about me or about my feelings.”
Mark held up his hands, sighed, and said, “Look, I just asked you 5 ‘Why’ questions. I feel like you have brought up a lot of problems and they seem to not have anything to do with going on dates!”
Michelle was quiet. And then she started to smile. “It works,” she said. “This is working. See, maybe the problem really isn’t dates. Sure, maybe I would like dates, but maybe what I need more is just your attention. I just want you to give me a little bit of time and attention to help me feel like you love me and care about me.”
Mark thought to himself, Then why didn’t you just come out and say that in the first place?
Then he hugged Michelle and said, “Hey cute lady, when I married you I didn’t know you would have so many ‘needs.’ I never had the best example of how to be a good husband, and I’m still learning. I’m grateful you’re patient with me and I’ll try harder to pay more attention to you. However, I may have to ask you another set of ‘5 Whys’ and maybe ‘5 Hows’ to figure out the way you need my attention and what that should look like in our relationship. For now, how about we just go on upstairs and plan a date together for Friday night.”
Michelle looked up at him, smiled, and said, “Thanks. I already told you though, maybe I don’t need date nights.”
“You need them. We both do,” Mark said as he gently squeezed her shoulders and then guided her upstairs.
“How did it go?” Mia asked Michelle? “Did you figure out why Mark doesn’t take you on dates?”
Michelle stopped and thought to herself about the conversation she and Mark had had last night. He had asked her all of the questions! She hadn’t even asked him “5 Whys” and she needed to. Michelle’s mind was spinning. Mark has feelings and needs too, and I didn’t even ask about them! I only focused on myself.
“It was a start.” Michelle responded, “I thought we would get down to the nitty gritty about why we don’t go on dates, what isn’t working, and if we need to take turns planning, or book a sitter well in advance, or what. However, we ended up not really talking about date night that much.”
“Really?” Mia asked. “What did you talk about?”
“Oh, just deeper things. Feelings, misunderstandings, you know, deeper things.”
“So, do you feel like things are going to work out?” Mia asked?
“Yes. I think we have a start. Learning to ask ‘Why’ questions is a good start for us. I think we are going to need to ask more than 5 sometimes, and we’ll need to ask some ‘How’ questions, too, in order to come up with helpful solutions, but the best part is that we were able to talk about something that was bothering me and we didn’t fight.”
“Good,” Mia said. “That is great.”
“Yeah, it is great,” Michelle said. “Thanks for helping me out!” Then Michelle hung up the phone and determined to go ask Mark the 5 Levels of Why and to listen to him share his feelings and needs, since she had only been focused on her own needs the night before. This simple little method is going to help us a lot, Michelle thought as she went to find Mark. I’m so grateful that we’re learning the skills and tools we need to make our marriage better.
Late Friday night Mia looked at her phone and smiled. There was a picture of Michelle and Mark, eating burgers and fries and playing putt-putt golf. “That’s a start,” she chuckled out loud to herself, “That’s a start!”
Conflict is a part of life. It is a part of every close relationship, and every marriage, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When we respond poorly to conflict (as most of us do) or when we don’t use it as an opportunity to learn, grow, or change, then conflict can stifle us, distance us from those we love, and cause even more problems in our marriages.
The next time your spouse brings up a complaint or need, try using The 5 Levels of Why to figure things out.
Here are a few problems/frustrations/complaints real couples have that may benefit from applying The 5 Levels of Why method:
- I feel like my wife is only concerned with herself.
- I hate when my husband watches TV for hours on end.
- My wife leaves piles of clutter everywhere.
- My husband never compliments me.
- I really don’t like it when my wife says she’ll do something and then she forgets.
- I feel like my husband never wants to have sex anymore.
- It’s frustrating to me when my wife makes fun of me in front of our extended family.
- I wish my husband would do something for me on Valentine’s Day.
Each couple may need to use The 5 Levels of Why on each other for the same complaint in order to understand what they can each do individually to help find a solution to the problem.
All of these complaints have deeper complaints/needs/expectations behind them. Being able to ask The 5 Levels of Why is a simple communication method that will help you understand each other better. Once you and your spouse can identify one or two real “Whys,” then you will be ready to jump into the “Hows” of applying real solutions that will help you nurture your marriage and feel more connected to your spouse than ever before.
The beautiful thing about this process is that it works. Plus, it leads to a deeper emotional connection and will help you and your spouse work through issues and find solutions that will work for you. Give it a try today and watch how it can transform negative experiences into positive ones, and how it may help you and your spouse figure out that “communication” thing everyone seems to talk about.