According to Wikipedia,” Curiosity (from the Latin curiosus "careful, diligent, curious," akin to cura "care") is a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and animal species”. I love that the roots of this word are akin to “care”. I see a motto right here, “To be curious is to care”.
Why be curious?
A client once gave me feedback that one of the most powerful skills I had taught her was simply to use the two words, “I wonder” more frequently. I was both surprised and delighted by her feedback. Being curious, in my opinion, allows so much flexibility in working relationships. Why is it such a helpful quality? Very simply it allows for open, flexible responses as opposed to narrow, rigid reactions.
Minds are clever things. They like shortcuts. So our mind will often jump to conclusions to help us process information more efficiently. This can be useful though it can also lead to distorted thinking. A few of the favourite thinking errors that are frequently described include “jumping to conclusions”, “catastrophising”, “personalizing” and “making a mountain out of a molehill”. Under pressure we tend to make more of these kinds of thinking errors. Without curiosity we will believe our thoughts to be true rather than our interpretation, a little like someone forgetting they have glasses on that change how they perceive the world.
Give the benefit of the doubt
Most, if not all, of our coaching clients are stretched near or to their limits in terms of time and energy. With looming deadlines and stressed out colleagues there is a recipe for short and reactive communication. If we step back and take a breath we can start to be curious about what is going on for our colleagues. You might consider to yourself or, as appropriate, ask about his / her thoughts, feelings and needs. If someone speaks abruptly or seems dismissive in either written or verbal communication then it can be useful to give the benefit of the doubt and try not to take it too personally.
Listen with attentive ears (and a closed mouth)
So often people listen with their mouths open just dying to get their response out. To truly listen with openness and awareness of your mind and body is a great gift. If that sounds odd then I’d encourage you to check in with yourself the next time you are in a tense conversation and notice what your mind is chattering about (e.g. “how dare she?”, “who does he think he is?”) and how your body is feeling (pounding heart, tense shoulders,). Greater (or more mindful) awareness allows for greater choice in how we respond.
We communicate with curiosity when we use phrases such as “I wonder whether we could consider……”, “Tell me more about what you mean”, “I’m curious to hear more about that”, and so on. We know when we are on the receiving side of a curious conversation when we feel heard, understood and valued.
Occasionally someone will say that they feel it is too passive to give the benefit of the doubt when someone is clearly being rude and disrespectful towards them. I would suggest that it is usually a great place to start. For example you can speculate, “what exactly did you mean when you said that?” with a calm, neutral, friendly voice and depending on the response your next words may need to be more assertive. Chances are though that often the person will realize they have been too abrupt and will tone things down a notch or two. You may have avoided a nasty showdown by being the calmer, less reactive one. Well done!
By being curious about others and giving the benefit of the doubt at times rather than assuming the worst we can pave the way for open and honest communication that is healthy and productive. Hopefully this means we go home at night feeling more proud than cranky and that has got to be a good thing.
Louise Shepherd is an executive coach with Executive Coaching International and also runs The Sydney ACT Centre. She has had a successful career for almost 20 years as a clinical psychologist. At eci Louise now works closely with senior executives across a wide array of industry sectors in Australia.