This method, which originated in the Toyota company in Japan in the 1930s and is in widespread use today, presents the potential for solving a problem by asking a series of questions, typically five, which lead you to identify the problem’s root cause. This is a route to preventing the problem from occurring again. It’s a technique which seems to work well in certain circumstances.
Of course, the circumstances and the situations which get on top of us at this time of year in particular are complex. They are not straightforward issues with clear-cut solutions. There is a world of difference between using this questioning technique to probe work issues such as why the mailshot went out late and how to fix what went wrong, and using it to explore personal areas.
Concerns about things like the division of labour at home, or the rows and tensions which mark family or other gatherings, or financial expenditure may be just some of the worries which are overwhelming and unbalance your sense of well-being.
Applying the Five Whys to stressful situations may not bring you to a solution, but it could help you to understand why you are feeling as you do.
The flashpoints for your distress are likely to be grounded in previous experiences and deep-rooted attitudes. What looks like the problem may not be the real problem. But once you understand the situation for what it is, once you feel that you know what is going on, you gain a bit of control, and that’s crucial.
Understanding what is really bugging you doesn’t always help you to remove the irritant, but being able to give it a name shifts the experience to a different place, where you can deal with it at some point, if you want to.
It sounds like a heavy process, but actually it needn’t take a lot of time, and feeling calmer and more in control is worth the investment of a few minutes. And be gentle. You’re not barking ‘why?’ at yourself in accusatory fashion, you are not looking to blame yourself or anyone else. You are taking a moment to communicate and touch base with your inner feelings. Look on it as a story which you are unravelling, a story about yourself.
And you don’t have to stick to five questions. Sometimes what you need emerges almost immediately, or you might want to keep going beyond five. Stop when you think you’re there, or when the number of questions start to get silly.
Let’s take an example, and look at how you could start off. Apparently, ‘gift anxiety’ is a major source of stress during Christmas or when you’re buying a present for somebody’s birthday or maybe picking a wedding present. You might find you’re obsessing about the choices you’re making, worrying that a present won’t be quite right, or that it will be perceived as costing too much or too little, or that it will reveal your tragic lack of taste…Whatever is getting to you, state it as a problem.
- Problem: ‘I am anxious about buying presents.’
- Question 1: Why am I anxious about it?
- Answer: I’m anxious that I won’t get the right things for people.
Choose your next question carefully. The point of the exercise is to get to the source of your anxiety, not to worry about the details of the actual present. It is important that your questions bring you closer to understanding your feelings.
- Question 2: Why does it matter if what I buy isn’t just right?
- Answer: It matters because I will have let them down /they will be disappointed in me/ I will feel I’ve wasted my time and money/it’s important that they get something they really like /their occasion will be spoilt/I will look inadequate/and so on.
- Question 3: Why am I worried about disappointing them?/and so on.
- Answer: You can make it real now. Come up with your own answers for this question, and then repeat the process with two more questions.
So you might learn that your tension about buying presents reflects your beliefs about your responsibility to the people in your life, or the connection your perceive between material goods and affection, or your need for approval, or your desire to make a good impression…
You may have a good idea about where the five questions will lead you as you tackle other stressful areas, or you may be surprised by what you discover about yourself.
You start by being wound up and resentful because, for example, you make all the family and social arrangements, and five questions later, you realise that you take on this role to live up to an ideal version of yourself which you have created. You may feel angry and resentful because you do most of the food preparation and cooking, and realise that you are actually angry with yourself for falling into patterns of behaviour which you learnt in early life. The row with a family member isn’t really about what is the right time to eat or pick people up or which film to watch. It actually reflects your feeling that your voice is never heard, or that your ideas are always the best, or that you have always felt inferior.
Of course you can take actions to change things you want to change, but at this point, it’s just about understanding what’s going on with you. Just acknowledge what you find with a ‘Oh, interesting’. Because that’s what it is. It’s neither good nor bad, just another facet of your complex personality.
Don’t be hard on yourself. Identify what is really stressing you, accept it, and put it away to examine later, if you want to, when the last mince pie has been eaten.