Curious about Curiosity #2: Cultivating Curiosity

This is the second installment in a three-part series on curiosity. Today’s entry considers how to cultivate curiosity in others and in yourself about others. In the Feb. 13 post we investigated being curious internally, i.e., self-reflection. Finally, on March 13 we will explore the role of curiosity at work and its relationship to organizational and group performance.

In a recent conversation with colleagues and former students, they wondered aloud about how, in difficult conversations or situations of conflict, they could cultivate curiosity in others who appear to only be interested in putting forth their own point of view or position.

This apparent lack of curiosity in what others think could be result of a person being under the influence of one of several biases including:

  • False Consensus Effect: people overestimate the level of universal agreement with their own beliefs, preferences, values and opinions. (“Of course, I want affordable housing in our community; doesn’t everyone?”);
  • Confirmation Bias: people seek and find evidence that confirms beliefs and ignore evidence that does not (also called cherry picking information);
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect: people with little expertise or ability assume that they have superior expertise or ability. In other words, they don’t know enough to know they don’t know enough.

All three of these get in the way of people being curious about what others might think or know. What causes these biases?

Individual history and experience certainly matter. Some biases seem to be a natural part of who we are. What’s key to know is that our biases influence how we perceive, think and behave outside of our conscious awareness. In fact, we have a bias about biases. This is known as “Blind Spot Bias.” This bias means we notice how the biases of others affect their judgment (“He always sees the down sides of everything.”) but we don’t notice the impact of our own biases on our thinking and behavior.

My experience is that biases, natural or otherwise, get stronger when we do not feel safe. People often don’t feel safe when they are afraid of being criticized (especially in a public setting) or feel isolated (the only person in the room with a particular perspective). When people are afraid, they get too busy protecting themselves to be curious about anyone else.

There are at least four ways to cultivate curiosity. First, enlist the help of your natural curiosity to ask questions and listen intently in order to understand how others see the situation and how they came to see the situation as they do. (“Please help me understand your point of view. What are your thoughts about…” And, “How did you come to think about it this way?”) You don’t need to agree but your interest in the perspectives of others might spark curiosity in them about yours and those of others.

Second, create interest in developing mutual understanding by restating what you heard them say (“So, you think that…Did I get that right?”), acknowledging how they came to see the situation as they do (“Given your experience, I can see how you came to see things as you do.”), AND then communicating your perspective. (“I see things differently than you do. Here’s how I see it…”

Third, if the other person or people to whom you are speaking interrupt you and start disagreeing or arguing, state your intention. (“I’d like to understand your point(s) of view and I want you to understand mine. I think it’s the only way we will be able to find a way forward on this topic. Are you willing to listen to and try to understand my perspective?”)

It is unusual for anyone to state they don’t want to understand your thoughts after you have demonstrated your desire to understand theirs.

Fourth, as mediation expert William Ury suggests, “go to the balcony.” Get curious about the situation as a whole including your internal state and the dynamics among those in the conversation. Ask yourself, “What might be going on for this person? For these people? How can I help them feel safe enough, so they are curious about various points of view and work together to find common ground?”

This final step involves you being able to manage your emotions enough (not deny or repress them) so that you don’t get trapped in reactivity and are not able to observe the interaction as a whole and your part in it. You might be the only one in the conversation who has the ability and intention to make it constructive through your curiosity and by cultivating curiosity in others by the applying the steps noted here.

2 thoughts on “Curious about Curiosity #2: Cultivating Curiosity”

  1. Very timely, Mary. I just heard a TED talk on the three ways of holding biases that you laid out. It reminds me that there ARE ways to get through what we usually see as hard-headedness, ignorance, etc. in the person with another viewpoint. Your suggestions for overcoming our biases and inviting others to look at theirs are quite useful. Hope to practice them more in the future. Thanks, Ashton

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