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I believe that a culture of curiosity pays dividends to not only any organization but also any relationship. In my work with my clients, especially when coaching co-founders and leadership teams, I see that nothing creates disconnection faster than an attachment to being right. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing the right answer or having conviction in a point of view, but the danger is when a point of view becomes connected to our own egos and identities. This is not the search for what is right, but rather an individual righteousness that flies in the face of truth.
Curiosity, on the other hand, fosters connection and builds up relationships. It creates space for innovation and creativity. It allows, still, for strong perspectives, but it creates the openness to evolve. It is the lifeblood of healthy, adaptable organizations.
So how, then, can we each take the responsibility to be curious, role modeling that for our teams and our peers? Three things have come into focus time and time again, three ways of helping to invite more curiosity into the workplace: staying present in the here and now, separating observation from imagination and letting go of binary thinking.
Staying present in the here and now
I often say that “the past tense is the language of blame.” It’s incredibly hard to have a grounded, curious conversation when we’re pulling in stories and arguments from the past. The same goes for spending too much time in the future tense. Sure, we need to learn from past mistakes and plan for future considerations, but these conversations should be grounded in the present around what we can learn or what we can do now.
The risk of being too past-focused is that we end up arguing about our own versions of history and the he-said-she-said. The risk of being too future-focused is that we speak in hypotheticals, usually focused on our own supporting facts and data. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with looking to the past or future, but to foster curiosity, try staying in the here and now. Lean into your own present-focused statements around your beliefs and feelings.
Separating observation from imagination
An observation is anything that could be played back on a video recording. It doesn’t mean it’s 100% correct, as a lot of research into the accuracy of memory shows, but it is objective in nature. An imagination is any story or judgment that we make up about our observations. It’s inherently subjective in nature and grounded in our own assumptions.
It’s helpful to keep the distinction in mind and to categorize our thoughts into one of the two camps. The implication here is that, while we can be reasonably confident in our observations, we must create some space for curiosity when our imaginations make up a story. Even more powerful is to use this language in practice. Call out your observations and imaginations out loud — for example, “I saw your eyebrows raise when I shared my quarterly results, and I’m guessing that you’re surprised.”
Letting go of binary thinking
The risk of binary thinking, or thinking in black-and-white, absolute terms, is that we might oversimplify a complicated idea and miss other perspectives. I see this most often when it comes to receiving feedback. The natural human response, when we get a piece of feedback, is to ask “Is it true or not?” Implicitly, we’re putting the feedback into either the “true” bucket or the “false” bucket. In doing so, we’re missing out on the precision of asking “Which parts of this are true?”
The latter approach invites openness and learning, while the former does not. It can be difficult to spot binary thinking, as it’s an easy default for our thought processes. But anytime we can spot it, we create an opportunity to expand the conversation away from either/or and into curiosity.
There are many ways to foster more curiosity in our organizations and relationships, but start with trying to stay present in the here and now, separate observation from imagination, and let go of binary thinking. Importantly, these are all things that we can do ourselves. We can take ownership of creating the culture we want and invite others into it as a result. Start by choosing just one of these three ideas and, with it, one commitment or action that you can do each day for the next few weeks. See what happens, and build on what works.
Good luck on your journey.