I was reminded the other day how much curiosity can help us to avoid and decrease conflict in our lives.
On my bus ride home, I laughed as the little girl in front of me sang herself a song and swayed back and forth. Her mom whipped her head around, glared at me, and snapped, “Don’t laugh at my kid!” My gut response was to get defensive, but curiosity won out, and I wondered what might be happening for her. How did she experience my laughter? As judgment of her parenting? As ridicule of her child? What had she experienced that led to that reaction? Maybe her child got in trouble for being loud at school. Maybe a stranger had recently commented about her parenting.
I realized her response wasn’t really about me. It was about her own experience. This helped me to let it go.
Of course, it's much easier to do this when we can get off the bus and never see the person again, but cultivating an attitude of curiosity can also help us to understand the reasons our family, friends, or coworkers behave in ways that seems unfair or unexplainable.
When we are upset with someone, we see them as bad, wrong, one-sided. When we imagine someone’s experience, we remember how complex people are, and how little we know about them. This opens us to possible solutions and new ways of seeing the problem.
It’s possible to build curiosity about people in our daily life. Start with easy situations. Eventually, it becomes easier to practice this skill even when we feel angry, hurt, or defensive.
Here are some ways to practice curiosity:
Observe people around you – on the bus, in a coffee shop, at the park – and imagine their stories. Where are they going? What are they thinking about? Who was the last person they talked to? It doesn’t matter that you don’t know. Make it up. Pretend they’re characters in a story you’re writing. It’s about being curious.
Ask your friends and family about something they love to do. What do they enjoy about it? How did they learn to do it? Who first got them involved? When did they first know they loved it? Set a timer for five minutes, and keep asking questions about the activity until it goes off. You can do this same activity asking yourself questions about something you love to do.
Try something new. Order something you wouldn’t usually order at a restaurant. Listen carefully to a kind of music you don’t usually listen to. Go to a neighbourhood, you’ve never visited before. Do it as an observer. Notice all the things that are different from what you’re used to, and wonder about them.
Thanks to my teacher Bonnie Miller for reminding why curiosity is so important.