We all find ourselves face-to-face with people who are angry, hurt, or sad. Sometimes we mean well but respond in ways that aren’t helpful.
In my latest column for U.S. News and World Report, I write about how curiosity, when nurtured as a habit, can actually change how your brain is wired.
Read on at U.S. News for the full article, and see the infographic below for tips on how you can turn curiosity into an established habit.
Follow these 5 tips and you can bring more curiosity into your life and relationships.
Ask open ended questions.
Open ended questions allow for more than a “yes” or “no” response. They encourage the other person to tell you more, while setting a collaborative tone and showing interest. Start with words like: what, why, how, or “tell me about….”
Rather than assuming, try to clarify.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions and think you know exactly what the other person means, even if it’s not what they directly said. Ask clarifying questions, and you’ll show that you are open to feedback and that you care about truly understanding. Summarize what you’ve heard, and ask if you got it right. You can also ask open-ended questions like “What do you mean by that?” or “Why do you think that is?”
Be mindful of your own feelings.
Pay attention to what emotions are coming up for you, and make your own self-care a priority. Make sure to validate your feelings by imagining where they might be coming from, and how those feelings make sense. This will help you be less reactive, so you can focus on doing what is needed in the moment.
Imagine you are in the other person’s shoes.
What might they be thinking? What might they be feeling? See if you can hold an image of their mind in your mind as you expand your awareness of another’s reality. You don’t have to know for sure what is in their mind — just imagine various possibilities.
Ask yourself, “What might I be missing?”
It’s easy to get stuck in old habits and patterns of thinking. This question forces you to think outside the box and look at other possibilities. Try playing devil’s advocate as you examine the counterarguments to what you have been thinking. See if you can find alternative ways of looking at the same situation.
You know how sometimes you really want to be right about something, and so you shut out any information that doesn’t support your argument?
Gaps in empathy are not only a relational problem. They are a societal problem. Cultivating empathy in ourselves can lead to changes in the environment around us, creating a better society.
Empathy can lead us to care more not just about those close to us, but also people we don’t even know. It can make us more socially conscious, responsible people. It can also make us more effective when we do work to improve social conditions. Not only do we need to be curious and caring about those who are adversely affected by social problems, but we also need to work to understand those who disagree with us.
Curiosity and empathy also make us happier and more satisfied with our lives.
Consider whether you are more concerned with being right, or with being effective. It is amazing how often we lose sight of what we really want, in favor of our desire to feel like we have the answers.
Letting go of this need to be right is the key to better understanding others, having better relationships, and having more positive emotional experiences.
How do you get there? It starts with being curious.
Curiosity involves taking a look at the world around you, seeing how things are, and wondering how they might be.
It demands starting from a place of not knowing, letting go of the need to be right, and being willing to accept new information.
Curiosity is wanting to know more. It’s a precursor to empathy: the ability to fill your imagination with the possibility for what may happen in another’s mind, and the willingness to feel what they may feel.
Often, rather than being curious, we make assumptions. This is reinforced by society. Humans are social beings, and we learn behavior from those around us. In conversations, we often think ahead to what we’re going to say, rather than truly listening. We make interpretations about what we think the other person really means.
What if, rather than assuming and analyzing, you were to remain open and curious about the many possibilities for what another person may be experiencing? What if you didn’t need to figure it out, but could instead get used to not knowing?
This approach can lead to increased empathy, helping us better tailor our responses to what the moment requires.