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The case for a curious mind 

 November 30, 2021

By  Donna Woodrow

One of the essential skills for any leader is knowing how to cultivate a curious mind in conversation with others. Maintaining a state of curiosity about what the other person is saying, means exploring the meaning of the words and phrases that the other person is using. Why is curiosity a valuable skill to practice? Read on and we'll explore the benefits of keeping a curious mind, along with how you can start practicing these skills in your everyday conversations. 

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We are meaning-makers.

When we are in conversation with someone, we filter the other persons words and stories through our own map of reality, in an attempt to 'make sense' of their intended meaning. That is to say - we make our own meaning about what the other person says and we make assumptions that their meaning-making is the same as ours.  

For example, if I were to say that today I saw the most amazing sunsetWithout describing any details of the sunset, most of us easily conjure up an image of a sunset in our minds, or perhaps you were transported back to a place where you once saw a really beautiful sunset. You might have a visual representation, any sounds or smells that you associated at the time you saw a beautiful sunset. Already, with the help of your imagination and past experience you have applied YOUR map of reality to my story by assuming that you can fill in the gaps.

Making assumptions, along with the - generalising, distorting and even deleting - of information, is commonplace in conversations. After all our brains are wired to make sense of things quickly, without having to do large calculations. We want to know what's happening out there, why it's happening and how to respond to it - and as intelligent as we are, our brains are wired to make sense of, and judge incoming information based on our prior experiences. But when we do this, we regularly mis-judge those times when this particular experience is nothing like the last one, or that indeed someone else may be experiencing the same phenomena in a very different way. 

Making assumptions works some of the time and we get by, but most of the time it leads to confusion in communication, ineffective meetings, unclear agreements and relationship breakdowns. What I witness as a coach and mediator, is that much of the conflict we experience in our relationships is caused by multiple people who have made very different meaning about a shared experience.

For example, I once had a leader share with me that they were frustrated by a team member who agreed to complete their work ASAP, and yet much to the leaders dismay, the work wasn't completed when he was expecting it, the coaching conversation went a little like this;

Coach: What specific outcome did you agree to with your team member?

Client: My team-member told me that they would complete the task ASAP.

Coach: Did you ask the team-member what specifically they meant by ASAP? Because if I try to make sense of that, I'm still no clearer about specifically when the work will be completed. 

Client: But ASAP means that it will be done immediately that everything else will be put aside, isn't that what ASAP means?

Coach: I hear that for you, ASAP means that a task will be done immediately and take priority over all other tasks. Did you share your meaning with the team member, and clarify that they shared the same meaning?

Client: No, I assumed that we were on the same page. 

Coach: Okay, what new awareness do you now have?

Client: That maybe they have met their obligation to complete the work ASAP,  as far as they understand it. I need to ask clarifying questions and ask them specifically what they mean when they say ASAP,  especially before I get angry at them.  

One of the key benefits to maintaining curiosity is that we get really clear in our communication. Without realising it, the leader and the team member had both agreed to a different outcome. For the leader, he expected the work to be submitted immediately, prioritised above all other work. For the team member however, they had conflicting priorities from other projects that they had made prior commitments to, and ASAP to them meant as soon as they were able to work on the newly assigned task - AFTER the existing tasks were completed.

Who's right and who's wrong? They're both right from their perspectives and their own meaning making, and they both missed an opportunity to remain really curious about what the other person meant by ASAP. 

What is a curious mind, and how do I cultivate one?

Thinking Curiosity - The case for a curious mind

I'm not sure what meaning you make from the word 'curiosity', but for me what comes to mind is the young child attempting to understand the world. Alternatively I conjure up images of the scientist in the lab testing their hypothesis. 

If we look at the dictionary definition of curiosity, it is defined as a strong desire to know or learn something. Which presupposes, that in order to have curiosity, we know that we don't already have the knowledge which we seek. So how do you cultivate a curious mind? What steps can you take to bring curiosity to your conversations and therefore get more clarity in your communication? 

If we take the two examples of the young child or the scientist, what do they both have in common? They both ask a lot of Questions. And indeed they will often have many more questions than they do answers.

One of the first steps to cultivating a curious mind is getting really skilled in asking valuable questions. I say valuable here, because not all questions will get you the outcome you're looking for. At times, some questions are more effective than others. For a little more information on the different kinds of questions you can ask, read this blog Leadership Skill 2 - Questioning, alternatively book a coaching session with one of our coaches to experience first hand all of the different kinds of questions. 

In particular, the kinds of questions that help us get clear and grounded in our language are clarification questions, probing questions and precision questions. What do you mean by X? What, when, where, how and why? What specifically do you mean by always?

There's also something else we can do, to support ourselves in asking really great questions. In order to ask questions, it helps if we have the desire to know or learn something. As Meta-Coaches, we practice getting into what we call the 'know-nothing' state. A mind-body state where we approach people and conversations with 'I don't know' frames of mind. To clarify, we still take what we do know with us into the coaching session, such as our skills, experience and knowledge on how to facilitate and effective coaching session, and we also keep an open mind to knowing that there are things we don't know, such as;

  • I don't know what is going to happen in this conversation before it happens.  
  • I don't know what meaning the other person is assigning to particular words, unless I ask them. 
  • I don't know what the client needs, only the client knows what the client needs. 

When we approach a conversation from a know-nothing state, it reduces the assumptions we make, which reduces the chance of mis-communication. The role of a coach or a leader is not to know it all and have all of the answers, but to facilitate a clients awareness or their team members success in reaching the agreed upon outcomes. If we both assume we know exactly what is going on here, then where is the new awareness going to come from? States and mind-frames of 'not-knowing' allow much more space for a desire to know to arise, which then evokes a need to ask questions. 

As a summary, here are the key steps to cultivating a curious mind in conversations.

  • Ask lots of questions. Practice asking questions, ask questions not just of others, but of your own assumptions too. This will help you both gain clarity in your communication with each other  
  • Approach your conversations from a 'know-nothing' state. Engage your humility, be open to learning new things and finding the delight in discovering what it is that you don't know. 
  • Encourage Questions in Return. Are you also being asked clarification questions? If not, why not? If so, this is great, and a sign that your partner in dialogue is keen to hear your message with clarity of understanding. 

Conclusion

The skill of holding a curious, or even a sceptical mind is foundational to Meta-Coaching, and it is one of the skills that makes Meta-Coaches so effective. 

A curious mind is a breeding ground for innovation, agility and adaptability, because when we know that we don't know, we are not locked into a particular way of being or a particular outcome based on our prior assumptions. We prepare ourselves for adaptation in the moment. This is one of the reasons we are often invited to work with leaders to facilitate their own capacity to have coaching conversations with their team. Allowing them clearer, more effective communication and increased agility in working with their teams towards shared outcomes. 

Would you like to avoid miscommunication and the disappointment from expectations? Reach out to one of Modo's coaches to discuss our leadership coaching programs. We'd love to hear from you.

Donna Woodrow


Donna takes a genuine interest in the collective and personal growth of the human race and its individuals. Donna is a seeker who loves to travel and invests considerable time in her own personal growth. Donna is a professional coach and trainer, experienced Enneagram facilitator and the Managing Director and Partner of Modo Coaching & Training.

Donna Woodrow

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