Communicating with Curiosity

Curiosity is often cited as a key trait for success because it improves intelligence, creativity, innovation, perseverance and collaboration [1]. Popular literature focuses heavily on curiosity as a trait that encourages learning and exploration since these qualities are more directly linked to individual brilliance through intelligence and innovation.

The impact of curiosity on communication is acknowledged but undervalued. Curiosity is one of the most critical traits to develop if you want to communicate more effectively.

When you engage your curiosity in a conversation it causes you listen more actively and ask questions about what the person is telling you. Not only does this allow you as the listener to get more information, it communicates to the speaker that you are interested in what they are saying and this makes them feel important. Feeling competent and valued is a deeply ingrained human need. We all have it. When we don’t feel valued in a conversation it can lead to intense anger or deep sadness. On the other hand, we like people who make us feel important and valued. We engage with them more openly because we feel safe in the relationship.

The benefits of feeling safe in a relationship reaches much further than building and deepening personal connections. In 2015 Google published the findings of an internal study that aimed to answer the question “What makes a Google team effective?”[2].  Going into the study they expected to find that the teams with the best composition of skills and competencies would be the teams that were most successful. As it turned out, this expectation was wrong. Google found that “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions”. 

Google uncovered five key dynamics that were common in the most successful teams. Of these five dynamics, the most important dynamic was psychological safety.  When people feel safe in a relationship they express their ideas more openly, they take more risks and they are more willing to admit mistakes. This leads to better teamwork. Ideas are more diverse, innovation is encouraged and teams can pull together sooner to overcome setbacks. Google goes on to say that “individuals with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives”. And it all starts with a mind frame of curiosity.

Curiosity is critical for effectively dealing with interpersonal conflicts.

Dealing with conflicts more effectively improves teamwork because people can challenge ideas without resulting in emotional fall out. But more importantly, effective conflict resolution is a key skill for maintaining good personal relationships which is a major contributor to happiness and life satisfaction [3].

Usually communication breaks down in conflict situations because we feel like our self-worth is under threat. Our ego is what protects us from the psychic pain when we do not act according to our beliefs about ourselves. Whenever there is a gap between who we think we are and how we behave our ego steps in with defence mechanisms to help us to overlook this disparity until we are mature enough to deal with it. The ego does this through our unconscious minds. We often don’t even realise we’re doing this because these processes happen in our amygdala (the thinking unconscious part of the brain).[4]

The amygdala is very good at making many fast decisions without us even realising. It relies on emotive memories from past events to determine how to act in the future. It is the part of the brain where our fight or flight mechanism resides alongside with our biases and unconscious assumptions based on past experiences. The amygdala processes information much faster than the prefrontal cortex where our rational thinking is done.

When we feel that our self-esteem is under threat we feel intense emotion that causes out amygdala to take over. This is what causes us to do and say things that we regret in conflict situations. Our automatic responses are to deny, avoid or displace information that threatens our self-esteem. These defence mechanisms may help us to deny our shortcomings to ourselves, but they usually cause conflicts to escalate.

For example, a simple question like “when will you do the dishes?” can be interpreted as an attack on our self-esteem because we believe that we are the type of person that fulfils our obligations. When we feel like this belief is questioned we engage in defensive communication and respond with something like “give me a break! It’s not like you ever do the dishes”. This comment triggers a similar defensive response from the other person such as “well, I do everything else around here, so excuse me for expecting you to do the dishes!”. And the fight is on.

The reason that curiosity is so powerful in resolving conflict is because approaching conflicts with curiosity engages our prefrontal cortex with its rational thinking to analyse the situation. Instead of defaulting to defensive communication, we can use our rational mind to respond in a way that can de-escalate the conflict. Our curiosity can be used to ask ourselves about the other person’s behaviour or it can be used to analyse our own behaviour. “Why is this making me so angry?” or “why does this person care about this?” are types of questions that allow your rational mind step in before the amygdala defaults to defensiveness. Instead of trying to save face we can ask questions to get more information or we can use meta-talk to explain how the conversation is making us feel in a non-threatening way.

Curiosity allows us to put on our white coats. Instead of being caught up in the heat of the moment, it allows us to take a step back and see the situation from a wider perspective (like a psychologist or therapist might see the situation if they were in the room). Only when we take a step back can we get the information we need to resolve the conflict.

It’s worth noting that once we use our rational mind to ask clarifying questions in a conflict situation, it also has the added benefit of making the other person feel heard and understood. This starts to add some safety back into the conversation (the other person does not feel like their self-worth is being threatened) and it brings oxygen into the conversation. The other person feels like they have the time and space to express themselves fully which means that they are more likely to listen to your perspective when you speak. This further contributes to de-escalating the situation by moving the focus of the conflict from the person to the problem that needs to be solved.

Nurturing our sense of curiosity is a keystone habit. Not only does it make us better professionally, but it improves our ability to communicate in difficult situations which deepens relationships instead of damaging them. The ability to improve our relationships is not only helpful for collaboration at work but it also leads to increased happiness and fulfilment through our personal relationships.

For further reading check out:

  1. Why Curiosity Matters, Harvard Business Review
  2. The five keys to a successful Google team, re:Work
  3. Global Happiness and Well-being policy report 2019
  4. Effective Communication Skills, The Great Courses

About the author

Divan Gradwell is co-host and producer of the Candour Communication Podcast where we discuss interpersonal communication and all the human stuff that gets in the way.