Genuine Curiosity

Roger Schwarz

If you want to get all the information out on the table so you can make the best decision possible, you need to be genuinely curious. That means asking genuine questions.
Unfortunately, many leaders think they are demonstrating genuine curiosity, but instead they use questions to show others what they think themselves.

Think about the questions you ask your team. Questions that start with contractions, as in “Don’t you think…,” are often not genuinely curious because they embed your own view in the question. In contrast, genuine questions often start with open-ended words, as in “What do you think?”

Do you think it’s possible you’re asking your team questions that you think are genuinely curious, but in fact they are not? Take a look at the questions below and identify whether you think the question is genuinely curious or not. If not, what makes it not genuine?

  1. “Why don’t we just try it this way and see how it works?”
  2. “I understand we’ve got an HR issue here, but what possessed you to call Jane?”
  3. “How do you see this situation?”
  4. “Would it be a good idea if we got this up on the whiteboard?”
  5. “Why can’t you just follow the procedure like everyone else?”

If you find yourself asking questions like these, consider this: Question 3 is the only genuinely curious question – it’s straight-forward, with no strings attached. The others are not genuinely curious:

  • In Question 1 you’re not really asking a question; instead you’re indirectly saying, “Let’s just try it the way I want to.” If you’re the senior leader of your team, you could be shutting people down with a question like this.
  • In Question 2 the words “what possessed you” reflect your own view, which roughly translates to “I think you’re crazy for calling Jane.” A question like this will lead others to get defensive and reduce trust.
  • In question 4 you’re actually saying that you think it’s a good idea to put this up on a whiteboard. In the 30+ years I have helped leaders and their teams, I have never heard someone ask this question and then say, “We’ll I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I was just asking.” A question like this can have many negative results; at a minimum it leads people to think that you don’t really want to hear their opinions.
  • In question 5 you’re stating your view as a question (the person isn’t following procedure and is not acting appropriately) and asking them to justify their answer rather than simply explain the situation. A question like this is bound to create defensiveness and unproductive conflict.

In each of these four cases, you’re not being genuinely curious about what others think. You’re not genuinely seeking new information. Instead, you’re using questions to demonstrate what you think. As a result, you are limiting your opportunity to reap the rewards of others’ knowledge and experience. Learn to be genuinely curious: it will help you get better information and make better decisions.

originally published August 2011