Sunday, March 29, 2009


Curiosity – The state in which you continue to ask questions about why your counterpart holds a given belief until you understand why as fully as you can. You need to be curious - ACTIVELY curious - because it transmits SO MUCH about your willingness to understand and your respect for your counterpart.

Whether you are engaged in a relationship conversation or a critical discussion, one of the hardest and most important things to do is to remain curious. That means DEEPLY curious about the other party's perspective. Many students write me after trying some things they've learned in class and tell me about "unexpected" things that happen. Almost always, the problem lies in their level of curiosity.

Curiosity is hard to attain because:
1 - It is common for us to hear a little bit of the other party's perspective and "fill in the blanks" for ourselves. This is gives us the impression that we heard the other side out, but clearly we didn't. We are taught early on to try to guess what the other party thinks from their actions. We have learned that we are usually wrong, and thus the need for curiosity.
2 - The "voice in our head" that helps us in our dealings with others is busy preparing what we will say when the other side is finished. Thus we aren't really listening to them.
3 - We feel that our perspective is more important, or more correct, than the other party's.

It is imperative that we hear the other side out for several reasons:
1 - If the other side feels that we aren't "getting it", they will escalate until they feel heard. This is usually the cause behind raised voices. What we commonly attribute to anger is usually due to frustration from not being heard. When you get to the point of raised voices, you will usually have to stop talking about the topic and shift gears in order to re-connect again. Sometimes, this is where we get defensive and one party withdraws or attacks.

2 - The purpose for the conversation is almost always mutual understanding. You won't achieve mutual understanding unless you ask questions about their perspective and listen to their answers

3 - The other party has information you don't have that could be critical to understanding the issue at hand. It is important to gather this data in order to develop an informed conclusion.

In order to maintain curiosity in spite of the desire to react, try the following:
1 - Instead of filling in the blanks for the other party, use active listening skills (listen, paraphrase, acknowledge). Ask questions that help you understand why they think the way they do ("what makes you say that?", "can you tell me more about that?", "help me understand why...").

2 - I frequently try to help the other party make their perspective and help them find supporting evidence for it. In doing so, I quickly come to understand it. Also, this lets the other party see you are objective. If you find something that you don't understand, they becoming willing to question it with you.

3 - Stop trying to silence the voice in your head. I have tried it endlessly, and it doesn't work. But it is EASY to train that voice to be curious, rather than distracted by preparing responses. When your inner voice is curious (asking questions like "I wonder how he/she got from point A to point B?"), then your inner voice is aligned with your mission - to understand the other party's story - and your manner is more authentic.

4 - Realize that you will NEVER understand the other party's perspective as well as you understand your own, but that should be your aim.

Simple Test - Before you begin analyzing the differences between your perspectives, ask yourself the question "Are there things that I see as differences between the two perspectives that I didn't actually hear the other party state?".

If there are, then you either filled in the blanks or have some more questions to ask.

If you are truly curious about the other party’s point of view, what exactly is it that will make you defensive? The answer is “nothing” because nothing they say is an attack – it is just their point of view, which is what you are seeking.

Let’s say I ask someone a very unsafe question like “What do you think of my performance on the Jenson project?” If I am curious, and they say “Frankly I thought you could have done better.” I would naturally ask “How?” If I am not curious, I might have a different response.

If I remain curious and ask how I might have done better, they might say “Well, at times you seemed a bit unprofessional when we were meeting with them.” Again, if I fall out of curiosity I might guess at what they mean and try to excuse myself, or I might just tell them they’re wrong, or I might attribute it to my style, or I might tell them that if they knew more about what I do they would understand, or I might tell them “that we will agree to disagree (yuck!)”.

If I stay curious, they might tell me “Well, in many meetings you showed up late and several times without a tie!” AHA! Guess what? You just learned what the other person’s definition of professionalism is and how they apply it. YOU STAYED CURIOUS AND LEARNED SOMETHING ABOUT HOW OTHER PEOPLE DEFINE PROFESSIONALISM. It of course will be up to you to determine what you do with the information, but by staying curious is the only way to earn that option.

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