How to Become Curious in a Difficult Conversation

Tackling a difficult conversation with a suspicious and mistrustful mindset is going to end in disaster. Approaching it with genuine curiosity will guarantee that you get something productive from it, but it’s not an easy task.

Think Like a Mediator – Move from Suspicion to Curiosity

When we’re suspicious of someone’s motives and intention 3 things happen that are just not helpful for us in our difficult conversations.

  1. We naturally become guarded which means we’re less likely to take risks and therefore lose our inclination or willingness to be vulnerable in our conversations.
  2. We start to see things that aren’t there, because as human beings we like certainty and we like to be right – it’s important to us. So it’s in our interests to look for things, however remote, however disconnected to reality, just to confirm our suspicions. So when we’re having the conversation we can say to ourselves, see I was right, they are in it for themselves.
  3. When we combine this sense of being guarded with this unconscious desire to distort our reality we miss the opportunity to learn and grow from difficulty.

Ideally I would like for every difficult conversation to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion. In other both people walk away having reached an outcome that meets their interests. In reality, we can’t control other people, we can only control our thinking, our behaviour and our outcomes.

Avoiding Groundhog Day

So at the top of your list of outcomes from a difficult conversation should be ‘to learn something’ that would be valuable to you in the future and would, however small, help you avoid ending up in situations that you might currently find yourself in. 

Curiosity is the Wick in the Candle of Learning

By accessing a genuine mindset of curiosity (the kind of curiosity you imagine a young child experiencing in their very early years), you can let go of the natural inclination to be suspicious. Because when you are genuinely curious you become open to learning. You learn about what makes others tick and you can learn about what makes you tick.

Two Paths to Curiosity

  1. Approach each situation as if it’s new – Children are highly effective learners, particularly in their early years partly because they encounter so many new situations. They’re also not carrying 30 years of psychological baggage around with them but that’s another story! So imagine if you were looking at this difficult conversation through the lens of young child, with an enthusiasm and willingness to learn.
  2. Sweep for blind spots – Assume that there’s a glimmer of a possibility that you’ve missed something; despite how convinced you might be to the contrary and however remote. Entertain this assumption and act like it is true. What’s the worst thing that could happen if this assumption were true? What’s the best thing that could happen if this  assumption were true?

So remember, a suspicious mind is not going to be helpful. Set yourself a priority outcome to learn something from the conversation. Approach it with the enthusiasm of an innocent of mind, seeing the conversation through a fresh new lens. Sweep for blind spots, nobody’s perfect, despite what we think, so entertain the possibility that you don’t know everything about the situation and be open to new and different information.

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