How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
-Alice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
It’s surely of little surprise that I place such tremendous value on curiosity. It’s what good therapists do: They get curious about their client’s lives. I also think it’s vital for everyone in living a fulfilling life and building meaningful relationships.
Curious is a good plan in the tough moments in relationships
It’s a great approach to dealing with difficult conversations and tense situations. When someone’s upset, or perhaps acting in ways that seem irrational, curiosity gives you something to do besides being reactive. It challenges our arrogant assumption that we know what’s rational–even that we know “What’s Going On.” It’s the mechanism through which we have a shot at understanding where the other person is coming from. It’s the possibility of creating a new, shared understanding of the situation that brought about the conflict in the first place.
It’s pretty essential to learning
Why does the division symbol look like a fraction? Why do we study the Greeks and Romans? Why does my teacher assign so much homework? How do those skinny little wires hold up that entire bridge? If you’ve got kids in your life (or even if you don’t) build an environment of curiosity: Ask questions that you don’t know the answer to (or even ones where there isn’t an answer). Look things up on the internet. Order the DVD. Check out the odd-looking new restaurant.
Curiosity is about exploring the history of things around us
Part of being curious is asking, “How did this come to be this way?” Whether it’s understanding the legal system, exploring how a romantic relationship went sour, or wondering why it was that Manhattan and not the much-larger Brooklyn became the center of NYC government and industry, understanding how things came to be is an important part of understanding where you’re at, how things change, and, most importantly, how best to move forward.
A few caveats on curiosity:
1) Curiosity, at its best, is pointless. Sometimes we set out in exploration in order to reach a specific end. That’s great, but it isn’t real curiosity. Being curious means setting out to explore without having any idea where that exploration will take you.
2) Sure, curiosity is a skill (or involves a set of related skills) but mostly it’s a matter of wanting. If you set out to be more curious, the skills will follow with relative ease.
3) Curiosity can be a trick. If you begin to explore where an angry friend is coming from it’s out-of-bounds to shift course part-way through the conversation. Remember, it’s improbable that you’ll like or agree with everything you hear, but being committed to being curious means continuing to be curious, even when what’s uncovered is unpleasant.
What does this look like in therapy?
As I said above, I’m pretty curious. That’s a given in therapy with me. I also work hard in my therapy groups to support the group to develop their curiosity. What does that look like? Often it means holding off the (sometimes overwhelming) urge to “help” in favor of getting closer to someone who’s in pain (see last week’s post on compassion for more on this). Other times it’s about exploring what someone’s saying even when they’re being provocative or hard to be with (though not when they’re being nasty–not every environment is conducive to curiosity). Curiosity is also a key tool in our philosophical explorations of what’s going on in our lives that’s causing us pain or keeping us from creating what we want. In the right environment, groups tend to be much better than individuals at being curious.
So try it. The next time someone’s driving you nuts, hold off your gut reactions and follow Alice’s example: get curiouser.