Being Genuinely Curious

Roger Schwarz

Yesterday at the dinner table, my eleven-year-old daughter asked me, “Aren’t there times when you absolutely know you’re right and the other person is wrong?” She had a disagreement at school that day and believed that her view was the truth. I said, “I used to think I was always right and that other people were wrong. Now I still think I may be right, but I realize that other people know things that I don’t. I’m more interested in learning than being right.”

This month I want to describe how you can use curiosity – a core value of The Mutual Learning approach – to increase your effectiveness. My clients often tell me that learning to be curious has significantly improved their relationships with others and the results they get.

Curiosity is the desire to learn. When you’re genuinely curious, you assume that other people may have information that you don’t have. You also assume that others may see things that you may miss. As a result, you consider your point of view open to change.

When I first started practicing the Mutual Learning approach, I was not genuinely curious. If people disagreed with me, I was curious about their points of view, but only so that I could use what I learned to better advocate my own point of view. I still believed that I was right and they were wrong. My colleague Peg Carlson made this clear when she said, “Roger, having a disagreement with you is like a war of attrition. I know we’ll end up doing what you want. It’s just a matter of how long I want to hang in.” I was just more sophisticated about hiding my belief, but it still guided my behavior. Does this describe you at times?

What I learned then is that it’s not enough to ask others about their points of view. If you’re not genuinely curious and if you’re not interested in seeking valid information, you will use your pseudo-curiosity to control others. And they will figure this out, even if you know how to say the right words such as, “do you see it differently?” or “what problems do you see with my suggestion?” To help her make the transition, my colleague Sue McKinney took to asking herself this question: “What would I say if I were curious?” It’s helped many of our clients build their curiosity.

When you’re genuinely curious, your questions come easily and naturally. When someone gives you negative feedback about your performance, if you’re genuinely curious, you can ask, “Can you give me some specific examples of times when I’ve done that? That would really help me understand better.” And if, when you get the examples, you see it differently, then you say so and still remain curious, exploring how the two of you see your performance in different lights.

Our clients often assume incorrectly that they have to be less vocal about their own point of view to be curious about others’ views. Not so. As long as you’re as curious about others views as you are passionate about your own, you will be able to use your curiosity to work effectively with others.

Sometimes the structures we work in make it more difficult for us to be curious. One of my favorite examples is a client that has a performance management system in which your boss has to approve your direct report’s performance evaluation before you can discuss the evaluation with your direct report. This sets up a dynamic in which you can find yourself in a dilemma if you are genuinely curious about how your direct report sees your evaluation of him. If you’re curious and find out that your direct report sees his performance more positively, and if you realize that you had missed some important information that would have led you to increase his rating, the system makes it difficult to change the rating that your boss has already approved. As a result, you are likely to control the performance evaluation with your direct report so that you don’t learn anything that would lead you to change your mind. This is just one of many examples. As you look around your organization or the organizations you work with, look for other structures or procedures that inhibit curiosity.

Originally published May 2005