Are You Leveraging the Power of Curiosity?

My dad likes to tell this story from my childhood: I was three years old, we were eating dinner and my mom chastised me for chewing with my mouth open, saying “That’s how pigs eat.” My immediate response: “Do cows do it too?” Apparently, I’ve always been curious about behavior, bovine and otherwise. 

Over the years, living in Japan and Europe and working in diverse company cultures, I’ve developed an endless fascination with understanding why humans behave the way they do and it’s a powerful tool in helping my clients when they get mired in a fixed perspective.

One client is a rock star in business development, bringing in high-profile, $20M+ deals for the firm. She was already managing two major projects and when she took on a third, a senior colleague made it clear that he thought she was biting off more than she could chew. “There’s no way you can take on a third project,” he said, “it’s too much, it’s too much.” She took his reaction personally, and assumed he was trying to thwart her success. Me, I had an alternative take: he was threatened by her abilities and rapid promotion in the company, in a panic wondering how he could keep up.

Anyone can be curious when something novel or unexpected happens: you know, if someone walks into the office dressed like a centaur. Genuine curiosity, however, means being able to bring an open, receptive mindset to even the most familiar of situations — buying coffee at Starbucks every morning, seeing the same characters in the weekly team meeting — and engage in finding subtle differences from the previous 100 times.

Curiosity is powerful, like a turbocharger for our mental muscles. It helps us build confidence, perform better under pressure, influence others and be happier. Here are three magic phrases to remind you to take a curious stance: 

“Isn’t that interesting?” Not the first thing we might think to ask, but in that moment when we flub up the data in an investor pitch or go blank fielding a question from the CEO, asking ourselves: Isn’t it interesting that I’m screwing this up?” or “Isn’t it interesting that I’m having this reaction?” is an advanced curiosity move. It allows us, says psychologist Pamela Enders, “to create a little distance, a little objectivity so that we’re feeling a little above or outside of it.” Zooming out downplays the fight-or flight reaction of our amygdala or the emotional part of the brain and allows us to access and connect with the thinking part of the brain. 

“I wonder if…” Most people don’t respond well to being told pointblank what to do differently, says Alana Winter, founder of MI6 Academy, who’s facilitated personal development and leadership training for hundreds of entrepreneur CEOs around the world. And you don’t really know with absolute certainty what will work for someone else anyway. So coming from a place of curious ’not-knowing,’ and asking “I wonder if you tried…” or “Have you thought about doing [this]…” (instead of a presumptive “you should…”) can be a subtle but powerful way to get someone to be receptive to a different behavior.

“What are three things that are intriguing?” No matter how exciting our long-term goals, the daily routine can be kind of tedious or mundane.

Todd Kashdan PhD, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to A Fulfilling Life, suggests instead of trying to stay positive, we stay intrigued. “Look for three things about this moment that are happening. It could be the thought process you’re having, it could be an unusual mole that somebody has. It could be the idea of how fast and fluid I am, I rarely write on a piece of paper, I’m so used to the computer, and my handwriting is so fast and so horrible, like a penmanship paper from kindergarten. Those kinds of little strategies keep you focused and attentive to what’s happening. It might not be positive but you’re intrigued and that’s going to keep you going during mundane tasks.”

The side effect, however, might be greater happiness. In a 2007 study, Kashdan and Colorado State psychologist Michael Steger found that when participants monitored their daily activities and emotions over 21 days, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life—and engaged in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities, such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others. 

Another bonus of curiosity: it helps us be compassionate. Once my client realized that her colleague’s behavior was likely more about his insecurity than it was about her, she could feel less animosity towards him and come up with multiple options for managing their relationship.

p.s. For more on curiosity, listen to my podcast interview with Todd Kashdan on Curiosity, The Secret Sauce in Mental Toughness.