Curiosity and the Chrysanthemum: Defuse Conflicts, Become a Masterful Negotiator, and Relish the Beauty of Change

Solution for getting optimal outcomes from conflicts and negotiations.

Posted Mar 26, 2009

The rules are simple: don't talk about politics, religion, sex, certainly not masturbation, and definitely don't question how someone parents their children. After all, what are you going to do if the person you're talking to is unwilling to appreciate your point of view? Can you handle a violent argument or an exhausting bout of strained silence? Out of fear, people hide from a number of important issues and a lot of relationships never build the strength to tolerate the intense emotions that arise during disagreements. As a clinical psychologist, I can tell you that handling conflict is essential to our well-being, healthy relationships, healthy workplaces, and healthy communities.

The truth is conflicts are inevitable. Human beings were never designed to live in the densely packed settings of modern society. With so many people in our personal space, so many emotions to read from so many faces, disagreements and arguments are unavoidable. It could be a romantic couple bickering on a regular basis about how to discipline their children. It could be a financially unstable business trying to negotiate a purchase with a stubborn buyer. It could be two nations that are inches away from war. Usually there is some value in negotiating some common ground to prevent conflicts from escalating into violent endings.

Researchers at Stanford University tested a simple idea for how to create successful outcomes during tense negotiations or conflicts. The reason that arguments can quickly turn ugly is that people don't feel as if they're being understood. Thus, make sure that each party feels as if they are being carefully listened to.

If people show that they are curious and willing to learn more about someone else's opposing view, this might be the key to diplomacy. That is, ask a single clarifying question about what another person's view is about. That's it. One question with a few important guidelines:

1. All you are doing is gathering information.
2. Be willing to suspend your biases and passionate beliefs-anticipate being challenged to defuse any defensive reactions on your part.
3. There is no commitment that you are going to alter or change your position based on what you learn.

Think of it as making an assessment of what the other person is thinking instead of judging them. Don't get me wrong, this is a hard mindset to be in. But what happens when we are genuinely curious about someone that holds a point-of-view that diverges from our own? By merely asking for a single bit of information, the other person views us as more open-minded and warm ("I appreciate you taking the time to actually hear me out"). They view us as different from the typical person with a belief system that differs from their own ("You know, it's refreshing to hear someone who is an atheist listen to what someone with faith actually has to say"). The other person feels as if we are paying attention and they don't just feel good, they view us as a good person. That curiosity, that open-mindedness, ends up being contagious. When you show curiosity in what they care about, they show a greater willingness to gather additional information from you. In the end, they are more willing to negotiate and come to a compromise that benefits everyone.

My favorite study asked participants to view a video of someone holding a view completely counter to their own belief system. Feminists vs. fans of pornography. Vegans vs. carnivores. Half of the participants were asked to prepare comments for the speaker. The other half were asked to prepare a single question showcasing their natural curiosity about the speaker's point of view ("Can you explain to me why the benefits of banning pornography outweigh the costs?"). What scientists found was that compared with people preparing comments, people armed with a single question viewed the message on the video as more intelligent and reasonable, viewed the speaker as more open-minded, and most promising, were more interested in meeting and getting to know the speaker in the future.

So what's the take-home message from this research? If we prepare people to be more curious before they hear messages, they are more receptive to what is being shared even if it clashes with their own worldviews. Consider the real-world implications. Think about the difficulty of creating peace between warring couples, corporations, and countries. Think about the government's attempts to sell controversial ideas about how to fix the economy. When we train ourselves to be curious ahead of time, when we prepare questions that don't smell of judgment and criticism, we open the doors to achieving the greatest possible outcomes in emotionally charged situations. Curiosity offers a back-door route to managing anxiety, conflict, and the uncertainty and ambiguity that colors most of our social world.

You should be skeptical. It sounds too good to be true. Come on now, one single question and people are going to compromise, appreciate each other, and sing "we are the world" together? Let me respond. First, what I am describing was tested using rigorous scientific methods so we can be much more confident than if someone gave you their opinion or relied on their intuition (which characterizes most books on happiness and meaning in life). Science is quality control. My entire book is informed by the latest scientific discoveries. From this research, I will provide you with a wide range of strategies for improving the quality of your own life and the lives of those around you. Second, we often believe that complex problems require complex solutions. Sometimes the simplest ideas are overlooked because they seem obvious and thus, impotent. Each of us is familiar with being curious but we differ on how often, how intensely, and how easily we enter this mindset. This book is about reclaiming this neglected, underappreciated strength. It's about learning how to actively wield this strength instead of passively waiting to bump into opportunities. Being curious on a regular basis takes practice because it requires us to alter our natural tendency to judge, categorize, and attempt to reach closure so that we feel confident, secure, and in control.

Dealing with conflicts in a successful manner only scratches the surface of the benefits of becoming a curious explorer. Read the book for much more (available for pre-order).  Read a recent book review of an advanced copy.

Oh, in case you were wondering, that pumpkin is exactly what I envisioned to accompany this article.