October 03, 2018

Embracing a Curious Mindset Amidst Adversity

When someone sends me an email or a text out of the blue asking if I have a few minutes to chat, I know one of two things:

  1. They are quitting.
  2. They are knee-deep in an interpersonal dilemma and don’t know what to do about it.

Lynn's Story

A few weeks ago, I received just such an email from a lovely former colleague of mine. We’ll call her Lynn. It turned out Lynn was quite distressed over a recent incident that occurred at work.

The day prior she had some unexpected free time at lunch and decided to attend a town hall presentation that her peer was giving. The room was packed, so she snuck in the back just as the presentation began. To her surprise, her colleague proceeded to present a number of slides pulled from work Lynn had done independently. But her colleague was presenting it as her own work.

Lynn felt betrayed and confused and she had no idea how to confront her. How could she trust her going forward?

These kinds of situations happen all the time – someone behaves in a way that is unfathomable to us. It happens at work, while we’re on the road driving, while we’re at the grocery store, and even at home with our families. And when this happens it is really easy to immediately attribute negative intentions. “He’s trying get credit at my expense!” “She’s trying to make me look bad!” “He’s being totally selfish!” “She doesn’t care about me at all!” And so on, and so on…

I find it quite easy to feel curious about quantum physics or the mating rituals of seahorses. But I struggle to conjure up that same feeling of curiosity when I see human behavior that I don’t understand—especially when the situation involves me personally.

Negativity is a Story

But the truth is, these are just stories we’re feeding ourselves. We don’t know them to be true (yet). It’s possible there are perfectly good explanations for behavior we find baffling. And yet, that’s not where our brains go first. Why is it so hard to be curious when we see behavior we don’t understand in our relationships?

What's even more puzzling is that most of us know the feeling of curiosity well. For example, I find it easy to feel curious about quantum physics or the mating rituals of seahorses. But I struggle to conjure up that same curiosity when I see human behavior I don’t understand—especially when the situation involves me personally. Instead, I start to tell myself a negative, ungenerous story about the other person’s motivations and intentions, which only serves to heighten my frustration and limit my ability to engage the person in an open and constructive way.

Embracing a Curious Mindset

The next time you catch your brain telling you a negative story in this kind of situation, try to embrace a curious mindset.

Curiosity helps us to have more open conversations, oriented around learning. It helps us de-personalize a situation and see it in a more neutral way. That in turn helps us manage our emotional reaction and lower our cortisol levels. It is literally a healthier response.

And when all of this is happening, we are able to think more clearly and creatively to come to a productive resolution. So instead of feeding yourself a negative story – which only serves to heighten your own frustration and close you off to productive engagement, try instead to adopt a curious stance.

This week, be curious when you see frustrating behavior you don’t understand. Take a moment to print out these questions and tack them up in various places where you’ll see them frequently (on your fridge, beside your desk, in your car, on the side of your laptop, you get the picture…)

5 Questions to Prompt Curiosity in the Face of Adversity

  • I wonder why we have different perspectives?
  • What data is informing this person’s conclusions?
  • I wonder what trade-offs they are making?
  • What might they be prioritizing?
  • Am I missing something?

Then, at the end of the week, assess whether you were able to catch yourself from getting sucked into a negativity vortex by using these curiosity prompts to remain more curious. Write us and tell us how you did!

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