If curiosity is a practice of knowledge-seeking, inquiry, and exploration, how might these ideas apply to our interpersonal relationships and our intrapersonal selves? After all, while some challenges in our lives are confined solely to ideas and objects, a great many of them involve knowing more about ourselves and others.
“I’m curious about other people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.”
– Meryl Streep
Living with a sense of curiosity provides us the possibility to see perspectives, from ourselves or others, with lightness and under a possibility of change. So whether you are wondering how to know more about how you interact with your children, or want to understand a family member’s belief, read on! We’ll be considering personal curiosity in three sections:
- Identity – How we see ourselves can influence our capacity to change our mind.
- Conversation – The way you approach conversation and conflict can greatly affect how your conversations turn out.
- Feedback – We might consider how we gather and react to feedback from others when considering new ideas
Identity asks the question ‘who am I?’. As we move through our lives, make decisions, and enter into peace or conflict, we use these ascribed aspects of ourselves (gender, political party, race, religion, class, etc.) to understand our social and physical environment.
Try It Out
Make an identity web! Using a piece of paper and a pen, write your name in the center and then write certain descriptors and ‘labels’ along the edges. Afterward, take a look at different descriptors and reflect upon the following questions:
- Mark the parts of your identity that you consider most important. How do you prioritize maintaining those parts of your identity?
- If I no longer viewed myself like this, how would my view of myself change?
- If someone else did not see me like this, what do I think that they would be missing?
- Which descriptors are you open to having change, and which descriptors are you averse to having change?
In the area of politics, there can be especially large hurdles to clear. In his research on social identity and politics, social scientist Ryan Stricker distinguishes between those who are social partisans and those who are ideological partisans. Social partisans are those who strongly identify with a political party, whereas ideological partisans are those who strongly identify with certain ideas or policies expressed by those parties. Both of these are aspects of our identity, or how we see ourselves, which includes what we believe.
Through experimentation, he found that social partisans were far less likely to engage in reciprocity, which broadly means “good faith willingness to give reasons and respond to disagreements in dialogue with an open mind”.1 Engaging in reciprocity might look like giving your social or ideological opponent the benefit of the doubt or seeing things from their perspective. Actively not engaging in reciprocity could look like feeling more negatively against the other side even in similar situations, or interpreting their intentions with less charitability.
So, how does this relate to curiosity – what does reciprocity have to do with being curious? Well, when we start having a discussion that touches upon the nature of a part of our identity, and how we understand it, we might react with defensiveness, alarm, or concern. Having curiosity means having the vulnerability to have the world change your mind and change how you see yourself. For this reason, it seems prudent that we are aware and even wary of the aspects of ourselves that tend toward social partisanism, and that we try and cultivate those parts that tend toward a sense of reciprocity.
If you’re interested in learning more about identity, read more here in the section on your storied life.
“Curiosity is what keeps us going, giving us the motivation to learn, to change, and to have novel experiences. This is especially important with respect to our curiosity about the future in general, but it is even more important when it comes to curiosity about one’s own future in specific. What gives meaning to our lives is partially derived from the fact that our future is open.”
– Ilhan Inan, The Philosophy of Curiosity
The tone of our communication can have significantly different outcomes, not only for the direction the conversation can take but also for how we end up feeling about it afterward. Whether the tone of the conversation is enthusiasm, inquiry, connection, or even heated disagreement, it can always also be done in a state of curiosity.
For a person who is engaging curiously:
- Novelty, creativity, understanding, or knowledge-seeking may be some goals in the conversation
- There is interest within the conversation for critically exploring the conversation together with lightness, even if the content itself is heavy
- Opinions may still be held with strong sincerity, if they are open to change
“From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together. We usually owned all of our toys in the common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions, and discussion between us.”
– Wilbur Wright, 1912
Different conversations, under certain goals and orientations, present varied opportunities. Curiosity then is a way that we might be able to access some of these goals, such as discovery, exploration, novelty, creativity, and insight.
In a curiosity-oriented conversation, such as client relations best practices or how to make a great scrambled egg, you want to know more afterward. The conversation itself is a path that both you and your partner walk together, and you might not come to the same conclusion in the end. And that’s alright! Seeing conversation as an opportunity for learning rather than an opportunity for agreement or obedience can help you learn more about yourself, the other person, and the topic of conversation itself.
Illuminating another person’s view can be a key part of having a productive conversation. Here are some conversational tools to help clarify the views of your conversation partner, or can even be used for your introspection.
When thinking about the following tools, consider the following topics with a conversation partner if they are available:
- Should companies be required to put labels on products that have been genetically modified in some way?
- Should children in third-world countries be allowed to work in factories if they want to?
- Religious non-profits in the US are given a tax exemption. What are the effects of this on society?
- On a scale of 0 to 10, how strong is your belief in X? (or, from 1 to 100)
- If you found that reason Y was not true, how much would your belief in X change?
- What evidence could make you more or less certain about X?
- ‘Steelmanning’ is a strategy in which you address your discussion partner’s strongest claim rather than supplanting their claims with weaker ones of your own design
- Restate the other person’s view. Do you have a good enough understanding of their view that you can state it in their terms?
- Invite the other person to explain your viewpoint to you. Then, ask if you can explain their viewpoint to them.
Find a conversation partner, and pick one of the following topics. Try using some of the tools listed above when they feel appropriate.
- Should the U.N. have a standing army?
- Should your country have Compulsory voting?
- Should maternity and paternity leaves be equal?
- Should prospective parents be able to select aesthetic traits in their children such as freckles, or the color of the child’s hair?
As we go about making decisions, communicating, and collaborating on projects, we’re often unsure how we are affecting others. Feedback presents the possibility for personal change, and when combined with a sense of introspection, it can be a powerful source of curiosity about the self and the situation.
Following these tips for receiving feedback can help in many different parts of your life – workplaces, friendships, and romantic relationships.
- After getting feedback, avoid using it as an opportunity to vent or express anger or irritation, either to the person giving feedback or a friend. While doing so may feel cathartic, it can increase feelings of anger and hurt rather than help.2
- Common advice given for feedback is the ‘feedback sandwich’, which means giving feedback in a positive-corrective-positive style. However, research shows that it doesn’t work any better than other orders of feedback methods. Nevertheless, try to listen to the positive intent of the person giving feedback, and recognize how they care about you as a person.3
- Make connections with people who will be giving you feedback. Not only will this give them better information to give you information, but you will also be less likely to discount their advice.4
“The pleasure lies not in discovering truth, but in searching for it.”
-Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Who we decide to be and how we interact with others seems to have bearing on what options for curiosity we will encounter. So when you think about your identity, how you make conversation with others, and how you respond to feedback, interacting with these ideas in curiosity-oriented ways can create opportunities for change and discovery.
- Strickler, R. (2017). Deliberate with the enemy? polarization, social identity, and attitudes toward disagreement. Political Research Quarterly, 71(1), 3–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912917721371
- Baron, R. A. (1990). Countering the effects of destructive criticism: The relative efficacy of four interventions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75(3), 235–245. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.75.3.235
- Henley, A. J., & DiGennaro Reed, F. D. (2015). Should you order the feedback sandwich? efficacy of feedback sequence and timing. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 35(3-4), 321–335. https://doi.org/10.1080/01608061.2015.1093057
- Algiraigri, A. H. (2014). Ten tips for receiving feedback effectively in clinical practice. Medical Education Online, 19(1), 25141. https://doi.org/10.3402/meo.v19.25141