“Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty.”
― Brené Brown,
Several years ago I moved to New Orleans on my own. I had one friend whom had a life and was busy with her friends and boyfriends so I was forced to make other friends. It was hard. I met Erin in my workplace and found that she was also new to the area too. We made a brunch date at The Country Club for the following weekend. During brunch our conversation flowed and we’ve been best friends ever since. As I’ve continued to know Erin, I have observed that she is incredibly skilled at connection. I’ve watched Erin turn acquaintances into friends and get any job she wants. When we would go out, she seemed to not only get but keep attention. What I learned about Erin is that she is a naturally curious person. She likes to know the what, when, and how of everything. And when she applies this in social situations she not only gets to know people but she makes them feel known.
When people struggle to connect they often struggle to show curiosity. In my experience, a lack of curiosity is not out of a lack of care, but out of difficulty sharing it. In my experience, and according to this study from George Mason University, a lack of curiosity in communication is linked to social anxiety.
When people are anxious we find that they talk too much or too little. If they talk too much they leave the other person feeling as if they’ve been through a tornado by the time the conversation is done. If they talk to little they may be forgotten about.
Having the skill to be curious can reduce the anxiety that conversations will fall flat. Here is a well known fact, people LOVE to talk about themselves. Ask the right questions and a conversation will flow. You might not even have to provide much (unless, of course, you’re with a skilled communicator whom is also curious).
“When you show curiosity and you ask questions, and find out something interesting about another person, people disclose more, share more, and they return the favor, asking questions of you,” says Todd Kashdan of George Mason University. “It sets up a spiral of give and take, which fosters intimacy.”
In The Gottman Institute’s research on couples, they have found that happy couples are curiously interested in their partner. These couples ask each other questions even when they are mad. Rather than get defensive during fights, “master couples” are able to step back and ask a question to get more clarity. As you can imagine, this leaves the other person feeling listened to and understand.
So, how do you increase curiosity in your daily life? Learn how to ask open ended questions, self soothe, and make the types of statements that communicate “keep going, I am still listening”.
Open ended questions sound like:
How did that happen?
What do you think about that?
It sounds like we disagree. Can you tell me what you think about this?
Tell me about …..
The more focused you stay on the person’s story the easier it is to stay calm. Remember, your only job is to hear them. Other than that you do not have to solve the problem, outdo them with a better story, or ask the perfect question. Your presence while someone is speaking is all that is requested. You might also self soothe by taking deep breaths or by grounding yourself by touching the underside of your chair or rubbing the fabric of your clothing.
To keep the conversation going:
“Whoa, that’s interesting. Tell me more”.
“No way! I have to hear this story!”
“Don’t stop! I’m really interested”
Eye contact! Head Nodding! Smiles!
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She works with individuals and couples to deepen their connections and improve their relationships.