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Stop Asking "Why" and Start Asking "What"

  • Published
  • By Kristina Conwill
  • 14th Flying Training Wing, Sexual Assault Victim Advocate

Our internal voice of why things happen to us without an explanation or reason can often bring us to question our purpose, our values, our actions, or thought process. We may seek to find confirmation of the “why” rather than search for the “what”. However, what if I could challenge you to learn a new skill set by simply taking a different approach?

As a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate for the 14th Flying Training Wing at Columbus Air Force Base, one of my roles is to assist survivors of sexual assault through the response and recovery process, to guide them back to feeling whole again and finding their autonomy. Survivors often ask us “why.” Why did this happen to me?  Why is no one listening? Why don’t they believe me? Why do I feel so much shame when it wasn’t my fault?  Why do people isolate me when I speak up for myself?  Why do I feel so depressed?  These influx of emotions appear when someone has lost their autonomy and they have been physically, emotionally or mentally violated.  You don’t have to be a sexual assault survivor to experience the inundation of the “why” in your life. 

The Columbus Air Force Base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) office is honored to share two powerful illustrations from one of our sexual assault survivors: “Tears” & “Face Your Fears”. It is a profound depiction of what we face when trauma happens in our lives, not just sexual trauma.

Instead of asking why the woman in the picture is crying, perhaps ask “What are you feeling right now?”  The images express the most intimate moments of vulnerability for the survivor, according to the artist. Through the image, the victim articulates their brokenness, being defeated, loss of control, and their struggle to find hope.

For the image of the young lady facing the skeleton, instead of asking why she is facing her skeleton with a flower behind her back, maybe we ask “What is your next step?” or “What might be the outcome if you give the flower to the skeleton verses holding it behind your back?” The artist states the image is a representation of the survivor facing the demons within. It expresses their sense of hope. According to them, it demonstrates that they see light in the darkness; they are strong enough to face those demons; they overcome their pain as well as hardship; and most importantly, they are courageous.

Our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team is dedicated to providing simplistic approaches to victim-centered healing. We are not counselors, nor do we provide counseling services. What we can and do is point out powerful life skill tools that survivors already have to bridge the gap between loss of autonomy and being empowered to find their internal voice in a healthy way.   We do this by focusing our efforts on effective communication utilizing powerful questions that will lead to personal problem solving.

One of our non-counseling methods is to encourage survivors to replace the “why” with a “what”.  For example, we may ask “What do you need right now to create space or a healthy boundary?”; “What other ways can you express your intent or concern?”; “What do you mean?”; What is the biggest challenge you are having today”?; “What would make you feel more comfortable?”; “What are some of the outcomes of making that choice?”. 

When we ask “what” versus “why,” the individual is able to problem solve to make decisions that are vital and important to their values and circumstances. In my experience as a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate, I’ve witnessed survivors regain back their autonomy by simply instituting the “what” question in their lives. We teach them to take this concept, utilize it first for their own healing and then apply it when connecting or communicating with others. 

We don’t have to experience sexual assault to understand loneliness, isolation, fear, frustration, sadness, emotional pain, shame, etc. At some point we have all felt one or more of these emotions in our lives and perhaps have asked ourselves “why.”

Whether we are a leader, supervisor, father, mother, peer or coworker we can utilize the “what” questions in our daily lives. At the end of your day ask someone close to you, “What was the best part of your day?” and then ask “What was the most challenging part of your day?” Incorporate the “what” question into your life for at least one week every day in order to experience open ended conversations and more connection.  Be true and authentic when inquiring with your friend, loved one or significant other. 

For leaders and supervisors who desire to have a positive impact in our Air Force culture, perhaps you ask the following questions: What are your plans for the weekend?  What do you like about your job?  What would be one thing you would change about your current job to make it more efficient?  What steps do you plan on taking to accomplish the end state?  What was one lesson you learned this week that impacted your life?

What is your next step in becoming more resilient? Answer:  Stop asking “why” and start asking “what”.

If you are interested in learning more about “what” questions please stop by our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) on the first floor of Mission Support Group building 730, Room 170 or call Ms. Kristina Conwill, at 662-364-7473 or Mr. Tony Bean, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, at 662-242-2105.