“Curiosity is the single most important attribute with which humans are born. More than a simple desire to discover or know things, curiosity is a powerful tool, like a scalpel or a searchlight. Curiosity changes us. It is also a way to effect change, perhaps even on a global level.” (Loren Rhoads)
Twice in the last week I’ve seen kindness equated with curiosity. That made me curious. I’ve always thought curiosity is an important quality to have if one wants a rich and insightful life, but I hadn’t directly connected curiosity with the value I hold dear: kindness.
In an article entitled “Kindness and Curiosity in Coaching” that recently appeared in the Huffington Post, business consultant and executive coach Ruth Henderson described how her mother would posit a kind explanation for other people’s behavior: after being cut off by a speeder, Ruth’s mom speculated, “Maybe his wife’s having a baby and he’s trying to get to the hospital.”
Later, when Ruth was a business professional, her own coach encouraged her to approach difficult or frustrating situations with an inquisitive mind. She told Ruth: “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.”
I think it’s true. If I ponder a work situation where a colleague did something that seemed terribly inappropriate, or a client blew up and offended everyone within earshot, it’s easy to get angry or judge that person harshly. But if I tap into my curiosity first, I have a very different response. What made that colleague choose to act inappropriately? Was she acting out of fear? Was there a misunderstanding? Did she somehow not realize the nature of her action? Was something else going on that I’m not seeing?
And what made that client blow up? Fear is often behind many such outbursts—what might he be afraid of? Or maybe he’s not feeling appreciated, or perhaps there’s a personal calamity in his life that has stretched him to his limits? What don’t I know that might explain his behavior?
As soon as I yield to curiosity and allow for the possibility that there may be something going on that is beyond my awareness, I can replace my reflex response of anger or disgust with a desire to understand and even a desire to help. Curiosity leads to kindness.
“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” (Kirsten Siggins)
Curiosity vs. Discipline
In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review—one that I think should be required reading for anyone who manages or supervises other people, or who wants to—Stanford University research psychologist Emma Sepppala, PhD, describes how compassion and curiosity are more effective than frustration and reprimand in responding to an underperforming employee or one who has made a serious mistake.
Traditional, authoritarian management approaches tend to focus on reprimanding, criticizing, even frightening the employee—the rationale being that fear and embarrassment might teach the individual the error of his/her ways. Instead, the research shows, it serves mostly to erode loyalty and trust and to impede creativity and innovation.
A more effective response to an employee’s error or underperformance is to first get our own emotions in control, and then view the situation from the employee’s eyes. Here’s where curiosity comes into play. What caused the mistake or what might be the reason for the poor performance? What is the employee feeling about the error that he made? Chances are he is horrified, embarrassed, and frightened. A kind response—this doesn’t mean overlooking the error, but using it as a teaching or coaching opportunity and doing it compassionately—will engender loyalty, trust, and even devotion. It will also be far more effective than reprimand or punishment in helping the employee avoid such mistakes in the future.
The loyalty engendered by the kind response extends beyond the particular employee you may be dealing with. Seppala notes that “If you are more compassionate to your employee, not only will he or she be more loyal to you, but anyone else who has witnessed your behavior may also experience elevation and feel more devoted to you.”
It makes sense. Everyone makes mistakes, and if our employees see their boss or manager respond kindly to a coworker’s blunder, they can feel secure in the knowledge that when they make a mistake, the response is likely to be similarly compassionate. This fosters a culture of safety, one that encourages innovation, creativity, productivity, and loyalty—these are the qualities that the best and the brightest are seeking for their career homes.
Whoever said “curiosity killed the cat,” had it wrong. Curiosity is one of the most beneficial qualities we can cultivate. Combine it with kindness and magic happens!
“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” (Tony Schwartz)