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Robert J Maurer Ph.D.
Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

The Power of Curiosity

How to use this essential tool to understand different opinions.

Emily Morter/Stocksnap
Source: Emily Morter/Stocksnap

Whenever I ask someone if they are curious, they almost always say yes. Yet, I find curiosity to be a rare skill. Curiosity can be defined as an interest in anything novel…and everything is novel. The reason that many people consider themselves curious, I believe, is that they are in jobs where asking customers or clients questions is a vital part of their role. Whether you are a physician, a mechanic, a salesperson, or wait staff, asking questions is a necessary problem-solving skill. However, problem-solving should not be confused with true curiosity.

Let me propose a way for you to test your skills in this area. First, consider your position on a specific social issue and find someone who has the opposite opinion. Then, ask that person ten open-ended, non-judgmental questions designed so you can truly understand their point of view…the whole time giving them no indication whatsoever that you do not agree. You will know if you are succeeding if they are becoming animated and verbal as they talk with you, a curious listener. If you find this task nearly impossible (and most people do), then you have your answer...curiosity may be a challenge for you!

So why is curiosity such an important skill? First, questions are an elegant way to learn more about another person and to gather additional information which may or may not turn out to be useful. The second reason curiosity is important is that it is an essential part of any negotiation, whether at home or at work. Consider these three points:

1. The purpose of any negotiation is to create doubts in the other person’s mind as to the validity of their position.
2. No one will allow you to create doubt unless they trust you.
3. No one will trust you until they are certain that you understand their point of view.

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and they keep saying the same words over and over again? Usually, the reason they are doing this is that you have not convinced them that you have understood their point of view. This skill, curiosity, takes much practice. It is possible to remain curious when someone is expressing an opinion or an argument that we don’t like…but it is not easy.

I try to practice this skill at least once a week, at a minimum. One of my favorite examples occurred when I was flying from Tucson to Los Angeles, a one-hour flight. As we traveled, I began a conversation with the passenger sitting next me by asking her what her plans were in Los Angeles. She said she was changing planes there on her way to Africa. I became interested and asked her what she was going to do there. She said, “It’s my 87th birthday and I’m going on a safari.” I asked if it was a photography safari and she said “No, a hunting safari.” She was a big game hunter and was traveling across the world to kill one of these animals. I felt a clutch in my chest. She was not my stereotype of a big game hunter, and this was not my idea of a good time! Given our differences in opinion, I could have spent the flight trying to make her feel bad about her choice. However, I didn’t see much point in that. Instead, I decided to use the time to practice being curious. I wondered, “Can I ask questions that are so open-ended, so curious, in such a positive tone of voice that she will have no idea that this sounds like a terrible idea to me?” I knew I was successful as she became more animated and verbal as she described her plans and shared her thoughts and feelings with me. As I mentioned before, this is not easy; but with enough practice, it is possible.

If you choose to practice this powerful skill, I have listed some possible questions you might use as you begin:

• Could you help me understand, what are your thoughts about……?
• How would you respond to people who say….?
• How do you feel about……?
• What would see as the ideal solution?
• How would you suggest I respond to those who believe….?
• Please tell me more about…..

Responding with curiosity when we are upset can be exceptionally challenging. However, truly understanding another person’s point of view is also a necessary skill for resolving conflict and building trust. In the next blog, we will discuss further why this is so difficult and explore one of the more obscure and most useful concepts in psychology.

About the Author
Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

Robert Maurer, Ph.D., a professor at UCLA, is the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at UCLA.

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