Recently working with a team in Denver, Colorado, I wrote on the whiteboard in all-caps: GET CURIOUS. This is my short-cut to creating a culture that allows for increased trust, improved performance and morale, and better working relationships. Curiosity is the eager desire to know. Curiosity is cultivating an inquisitive nature. Though pushy curiosity can be deemed as nosiness, with good intent, curiosity is the drive to connect, to understand, and to discover.
Why is this an essential quality and practice to cultivate on your team and in your organization? Because seeking understanding is one of the most essential elements in human communication, and knowing how to do this by courting curiosity (and its cousin wonder) is your doorway into this territory.
One thing is for certain: you cannot both get (sincerely) curious and judge or rush to rationalize at the same time. Getting curious, and seeking to understand, helps you enter into a different space for conversation and connection. In Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 5 is “seek first to understand and then be understood.” This is the actualizing of curiosity: patiently hold back on what you think you need to say in order to fully understand the other. This is easy with someone you like or with whom you have trust—not so easy with someone who frustrates you or with whom you have a challenging relationship, but that’s the most important reason to get curious. When we feel like the stakes are high or when we have something important we need to communicate, it can be challenging to postpone what we need to say in favor of getting curious about another. Yet, this is one of the quickest ways to get at those things we most want in working relationships.
When can you consciously practice?
- When you really don’t know. Sometimes we start down a road of making up our minds or creating a story that isn’t actually true. Often, when I hear someone doing this, I might say, “Is that 100% true?” And most of the time, it’s not. Getting curious allows you to gain information and understanding, which is critical when you really do not know the whole picture or situation.
- When you think you know, and you’re finding yourself feeling judgmental or righteous about a situation or person. Feeling judgmental or righteous is most often a signal to take an internal look at what’s going on. In Leadership and Self-Deception (Arbinger Institute), we realize that when we stay “in the box” about someone, we must continually make them wrong, in order for us to be right. This often creates a zero-sum game and lack of understanding. If you’re willing to take a step back, get curious, actively listen and strive for connection, you may find yourself in a place of renewed collaboration and better communication.
- When you purposely want to improve a relationship and increase trust. Understanding and empathy are common human needs: we all want to be understood, seen, and heard. In fact, empathy (demonstrating that you understand what someone is feeling and why they feel that way) is one of the greatest investments you can make in another human being. Getting curious, or seeking to understand, makes large deposits in the other person’s trust bank and helps to create a foundation for a stronger relationship.
David James Duncan, one of my favorite authors and modern-day philosophers (The River Why, the Brothers K and River Teeth) holds the notion of “wonder” as his “second favorite condition to be in, after love—“ He says, “wonder is like grace, in that it’s not a condition we grasp: wonder grasps us. We do have the freedom to elude wonder’s grasp. We have the freedom to do all sorts of stupid things. By deploying cynicism, rationalism, fear, arrogance, judgmental-ism, we can evade wonder nonstop, all our lives . . . wonder defies rational analysis.”
And wonder, like curiosity, is the seed and impetus behind creativity and innovation. How many new ideas for improving customer delight, a new product or service, or employee performance and engagement began with the phrase, “I wonder .. . . ?” How can you get curious today?
 David James Duncan. “Wonder. Yogi. Gladly” in God Laughs and Plays.