Why Curiosity Matters in Conflict Resolution and Problem Solving (and How to Start by Looking Within)
An excerpt from “Don’t Feed the Elephants: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships” by Sarah Noll Wilson

I once came across a definition of curiosity in a dictionary as “seeking to learn the unknown.” What I’d like to add is “. . . and knowing there’s always an unknown." In Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie wrote, “Curiosity starts with the itch to explore.” To be curious requires intellectual humility. It requires us to own and explore what we don’t know. Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at the University of California, Davis, describes intellectual humility as the ability to acknowledge that what we know is sharply limited.

Great leaders aren’t conditionally curious; they are chronically curious.

Great leaders don’t just value curiosity; they model it and advocate for it in everything they do.

Great leaders aren’t only curious when it serves them or when it is easy.

Great leaders aren’t conditionally curious; they are chronically curious.

Being chronically curious means to explore and respond to possibility. 

Being chronically curious is a gift to ourselves and those around us.

What do I mean, exactly? When we are doing the work to free elephants [confront avoidance] we are really building and rebuilding relationships. When we are building and rebuilding (and sometimes healing) relationships, it requires us to look deeper at ourselves and beyond ourselves. Curiosity helps us get there.

Your Self-Curiosity Question Tool-Kit

The work of getting curious with ourselves requires us to conduct “fearless audits” to ask questions that help us uncover what is beyond the surface, to seek out the unknown, even if that is uncomfortable. Exploring ourselves through the lens of a fearless audit needs a healthy dose of courage as well because we might discover something new about ourselves, we might discover something difficult, or we might need to face something we’ve known but have managed to avoid.

There is not a limited single set of questions for us to ask because every situation is different. However, I will share with you the top questions I’ve gathered, created, and tested in my work that can be applied to many situations. You don’t need to ask yourself all of these questions, but choosing some will create a powerful place for you to start.

What is my perspective on the situation?

Taking a moment to simply capture your perspective is powerful. Notice I’m not asking you to state what the situation is, but rather your perspective. Our words matter, and the word perspective is intentional. As much as we can feel like our experience is the truth, every person involved will see it differently. Before we can move forward with any type of conversation, we need to make sure we can clearly see and state our experience.

What do I know to be true?

This is where we start to dig into our perspective and challenge ourselves to examine it more objectively. Our brains are so good at making interpretations about why something happened the way it did or why someone behaved a certain way that we need to create space between what we observed and our interpretation. 

What do I need to confirm?

Once we have identified our perspective and clarified what we observed, it can be helpful in some situations to understand what we might be missing. This is where we need to test our assumptions about the situation or the person or gather additional missing information. When we look at assumptions, it isn’t that they are untrue, but they are unexamined. Often situations involving humans are complex, and our assumptions work to simplify. Those simplified ideas/assumptions can get in the way of understanding a complex situation.

Is this a preference, process, or performance issue?

If you created or fed an elephant [avoidance] in response to someone else’s behavior, it is critical to ask this question. In his work on marriages, Dr. John Gottman observed that sixty-nine percent of all issues in relationships are perpetual, meaning that it is a difference in style or needs. One of the biggest traps I see people fall into–especially leaders–is confusing the preference or process with a performance issue. We all have a preferred way to communicate, approach our work, navigate our relationships, eat our food, etc. Because our preferences feel right to us, we think they should be right for everyone else. What can happen is that we think because another way is different, it is wrong–which is not always true.

What role did I or do I play?

In my experience, exploring and owning your role is the hardest of the questions to explore. This question challenges us to consider that not only we may have contributed to the situation, but maybe we didn’t show up at our best. We are humans with complex egos and images of who we hope to be, and it’s not always easy when the mirror shows a different reflection.

What bias might I be holding onto? 

As we explored earlier, we all have various biases we hold in situations, whether we are aware of them or not. Part of our fearless audit is to take inventory of existing biases we might hold about a person, a department, a situation, etc. This work challenges us to realize that even in the act of seeking biases and understanding them, we will never see them all. In the world of research, one of the practices is to name and become familiar with biases that may impact the project. The same may be of value when thinking about your relationships. What beliefs might we be holding on to that might impact how we perceive this situation or how we move forward?

How do I feel?

Emotions are in us all the time, and we don’t often stop to notice, name, and get curious about them. Taking the time to answer the simple question “How do I feel?” can open up insight into what is really going on or help us better understand why we are reacting the way we are.

What value of mine is being stepped on or not honored?

Think about a time when you had a strong reaction to a situation. Don’t just think of who frustrated you; reflect on what frustrated you. Often when we have a strong negative reaction to a situation (whether we realize it or not), we have a value that is not being met. When you find yourself frustrated with someone or a situation, a great question to ask yourself is, “What value of mine isn't being honored or stepped on?”

From there, ask yourself the following before moving forward: “What do I need from this situation?” And “What would success look like in his moment?”

Want more? Get the book!


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