Curiosity: The Secret to High-Functioning Communication

How to be a curious, not judgmental leader

Walt Whitman said, “Be curious; not judgmental.”

The word, curiosity, evokes a sense of openness and flexibility. That’s a good way to approach interpersonal communication. In my courses, we define the goal of communication as “effectively exchanging information while enhancing the relationship.” That goal statement came from training I participated in years ago, and it stuck.

There are three components to being a curious communicator. You can embrace one or all of them. If you master one component, it will enhance your communication capability. Master all, and you become a high-functioning communicator.

  1. Who’s here?
    Before the first word is exchanged, pause to consider “Who’s here?” What do you know about the person with whom you will communicate? What is the communication style of the person? Are they a get-down-to-business person? Do they want to chat first? Will they take a deep dive into the data or skim the surface? What’s their work background or personal background? From what perspective are they likely to view this topic? For example, in Texas, where I grew up, “yes sir” is used as a sign of respect. However, someone from New York City may hear the same “yes, sir” as patronizing. The same words are being used but the different backgrounds color our perceptions. Before you start conversing, bring curiosity into the mix.
  2. Verify content.
    Effective communication is surprisingly difficult. That’s because we hear the same words through our respective filters. The only way to confirm understanding is through reflective listening. Reflective listening means that you reflect on your understanding of someone’s remarks in your own words. Use phrases like:

    • Let me repeat that back to make sure I understand.
    • What I hear you saying is…
    • Do I understand correctly that…

This simple approach demonstrates your interest in understanding the intent of the other person’s remarks and ensures that your understanding matches theirs. It’s a technique that requires both practice and curiosity.

  1. Acknowledge emotional context.
    This is perhaps the least obvious of the communication components. Like reflective listening, you reflect on your observation of the emotional state of the speaker. For example, if my boss asks when the report will be turned in. I may say calmly, “I’ll have it in on Friday.” Or, I may say with crossed arms, elevated voice, and frustration, “I’ll have it in on Friday!” The content is the same, but the emotion is very different. A high-functioning communicator addresses both the factual content (the date the report will be in) and the emotional context (frustration). You might say, “You seem frustrated about the report. Is there something I should know about?”

    Research in neuroscience shows that acknowledging emotion calms the brain of the emotional person so that rational thought returns. Conversely, suppressing emotion agitates the brain. Using well-meaning suppression phrases is like throwing fuel on a fire for the brain. Common suppression phrases include:
    • You shouldn’t feel that way.
    • You’re getting upset over nothing.
    • You’re over-reacting
    • It will be fine.

Replace suppression phrases with statements acknowledging the emotion such as:  “You seem frustrated by this project.” “You sound concerned about the deadline.” “I can tell you were upset by the interruptions.” Acknowledging the emotion feels like empathy and requires curiosity.

Curiosity is the cornerstone to each of these components and it must be sincere. Be truly curious about the other person and their perspective. Be curious about their emotional state. Be curious about who they are and the influence their background has on their point of view.

Curiosity. It is the secret ingredient for high-functioning communicators. Are you curious?

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