I was a curious kid who roamed the wooded area around our house, poking at things, observing, taking notes. I collected lizards, mice, injured rabbits, bottom scum from ponds and observed the wildlife. To many people, these things would not be interesting, but to me they were (and still are) endlessly fascinating.
I went on to study biology in college in a nurturing environment with amazing teachers who fostered my curiosity even more. I put hard work in book learning and loved the hands-on laboratory work where sometimes unexpected things happened that fueled my inquisitiveness and encouraged further exploration. My first professional position was in an experimental laboratory, and I had the good fortune of having a good boss who allowed me plenty of leeway to explore freely.
At some point, my curiosity turned to people – their motivations and stories. These new objects of my wonder were everywhere: at work, in the park, in the airport. I would tell my husband the stories of the people I met and he would comment about how strange it was that I’d heard such intimate detail about stranger’s lives. I believe it was my attention to them that encouraged them to tell their stories.
Curiosity is the fuel for creativity and a foundation for great relationships; it blasts through the assumptions and judgments we make about other people and it calms conflict. As a leader, you can foster respectful curiosity by modelling it with:
Presence: Be intentional about where you put your attention. Turn off or turn away from distractions when you are in conversation and turn fully to the person in front of you. In those moments, do whatever you need to do to focus completely on them.
Listen: The kind of deep listening where you turn off the chatter in your brain and focus to understand the other person will help you to become more curious. If you start to judge them or make assumptions about their point of view, you won’t have the benefit of learning about them. When that happens, notice and go back to listening to understand their viewpoint.
Inquire: It can be magical when we’re focused on the other person in this way, as your curiosity arises on its own. You may find that you want to know more; ask some respectful questions that are open ended (not yes/no) and begin with “what” or “how.” If you have any doubt about whether your questions will not be taken as “respectful”, ask permission to ask the question: “May I ask you a question about……?”
People love to feel heard and respected. If you consider the times you’ve really felt like someone listened to and respected you, you’ll remember what that feels like.
What if you tried being as curious about others as you are about how to read a financial statement or how to make your quarterly goals? Your curiosity is a great way to engage others and model the building of great workplace relationships.
More From Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small- sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.