To be curious is to be inquisitive. It is to ask questions and pursue answers to them. People who are curious are explorers who wander and wonder, poking around to figure things out. Curiosity drives people to all sorts of discoveries, novel approaches, unique decision-making, and more. This being curious is often associated with an interest in ideas and intellectual pursuits. But there’s another aspect of curiosity that I want to explore this week. It is the way that curiosity--that same inquisitiveness--can impact our relationships. Curiosity can make our relationships stronger, deeper, and more meaningful. It can improve our romantic relationships with spouses and partners. It can enhance communication with family members, friends,and coworkers. And it can benefit our overall engagement with people we don’t know well or don’t know at all. It can even deepen our connection with the family dog, cat, bird, or hamster, as well as with animals in the wild.
Eve Hogan who is an author, speaker, and educator in the personal growth field shares a story about being curious. It’s a story that I relate to because I can imagine finding myself in this scenario. Hogan says that when she was younger and fairly new to the field, she went to a self-esteem conference. She was seated next to a much older man. Before the presentation he asked her for her thoughts about self-esteem. He wanted to know what she thought it was and what she knew about it. Hogan assumed he was asking because he didn’t know and because he was hoping to learn from her. He listened attentively as she shared her thoughts. When they introduced the next speaker, that man who had asked her for her thoughts stood up and walked to the podium. He was the expert it turned out. I would have been slouching deeply into my chair at this point. Hogan said that she learned something so valuable--at least after she got over the embarrassment. She says:
Other than my embarrassment over not recognizing his authority on the subject, his humble inquiry and curiosity taught me such a powerful lesson. He could have easily taken advantage of the moment, as an expert on the topic, to spew everything he knew, but instead he asked me several questions and listened intently. I realized that being humble and curious is how one learns; it is also how we engage another in a heart to heart conversation. (“The Value Of Curiosity in Building Relationships,” Eve Hogan, Sept. 28, 2015, https://spiritualityhealth.com/blogs/real-love-with-eve/2015/09/28/eve-hogan-value-curiosity-building-relationships)
Hogan points to one of the profound insights about curiosity. Being humble and curious is how we engage another in a heart to heart conversation. Curiosity is about the heart as well as the head.
We can recognize the truth of this from our own personal experience, as Hogan did. Science also bears it out. Todd Kashdan of George Mason University researched the ways that curiosity impacts relationships. He concludes that, “Being interested is more important in cultivating a relationship and maintaining a relationship than being interesting; that’s what gets the dialogue going. It’s the secret juice of relationships.” Rather than being busy trying to demonstrate how interesting we are, we do well to spend more time showing how interested we are. Being interested in others lets them know they are valued. When another person is curious about who we are and how we think and behave, we feel seen and heard. Rather than being judged or ignored, we find ourselves affirmed. We also experience a sense of connection.
That sense of connection works both ways. It benefits the person who is being curious and the person who is the subject of curiosity. Not only does the person who is the subject of curiosity feel more connected to the person who is curious and expressing interest in them. The person who is curious feels more connected to the person they are expressing interest in. As Kashdan says, “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. It sets up a spiral of give and take, which fosters intimacy.”
Sometimes we’re reluctant to express interest in another person. We might be reluctant because we think that other person is extraordinary in some way--super attractive, intelligent, accomplished, or just really cool--and won’t be interested in us. We might be afraid of being rejected. And we know that social rejection can be a devastating experience. In fact, many of us carry the wounds of rejection from our early years long into adulthood. But it turns out that curiosity minimizes those very experiences of rejection. In a study conducted in Japan, researchers surveyed 20-39 year olds. They found that curious participants were able to recover more quickly from social rejection. And they have less aggressive responses toward those who hurt their feelings than those who are less curious.
These findings point to another way that curiosity helps to build relationships. According to Kashdan, curiosity offers greater perspective. Those who are more curious aren’t afraid to engage with those who are different, and they strive to understand different points of view. Rather than focusing on being judgmental or feeling intimidated, they are more likely to try to learn from situations and people. (“Why Curious People Have Better Relationships,” JILL SUTTIE, MAY 31, 2017, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_curious_people_have_better_relationships)
Unitarian Universalists are committed to appreciating different points of view. We acknowledge, appreciate, and strive to support the many types of families, for example. We try to bring a sense of curiosity and understanding of pluralism to our relationships.
This is certainly a growing edge for our nation, for our Unitarian Universalist faith, and for us individually. There is much to learn about doing this kind of relational work. And bringing humility and genuine curiosity to our interactions with others, especially those who are different from us, is especially helpful.
In the podcast “Is Curiosity the Secret to an Extraordinary Life?” producer Lindsey Fox describes how he came to observe the way a heightened and intense level of curiosity leads to a greater interest in other people. Fox was filming an interview with Israeli economist and professor Dan Ariely. Ariely is an extremely busy person with a demanding schedule. He came to the interview from other interviews and was on his way immediately afterward to go on tour. He was in a hurry. But as he was leaving, Ariely noticed that one of the camera men had a lot of tattoos. Ariely was so curious. He said to the camera man, “so tell me about this?” He didn’t want to know about the tattoos. He wanted to know the story of the tattoos. He wanted to know why the tattoo was there, each of the tattoos. Ariely was utterly fascinated, genuinely curious.
Genuine curiosity is key here--the way a child expresses curiosity. Ariely wanted to know “what’s the story being told that would lead someone to want to tell this story with all this ink on their bodies.” And so Ariely had an “incredible conversation” with the camera man before leaving, a heart to heart conversation. (“Is Curiosity the Secret to an Extraordinary Life?” Podcast, www.goodlifeproject.com/podcast/power-of-curiosity/, Lindsey Fox)
Genuine, authentic curiosity leads us to want to know someone else’s story. Leading questions, questions that are really not questions at all but statements disguised as questions such as “why are you so stubborn?”, and prying questions are not about curiosity. They are about judgment, shaming, and othering. Some questions put people on the spot. When we meet people here at church, we sometimes ask, are you new here? Where do you live? What do you do for a living? These may seem harmless but they can be alienating and anything but harmless. A question like: what brought you here this morning? creates opportunities for the person to share as they wish. Genuine curiosity is open-ended and leads to saying things like “so tell me about this?” What’s the story being told? That kind of curiosity motivates us to want to know another person’s experience or another being’s experience, to know what brings them joy or despair, to know why they do what they do. Such curiosity is a matter of the heart. It is both humble and compassionate. It allows other people to open up and share what they want to share.
In his piece, “Call Me by My True Names,” Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, captures how curiosity leads to a deep soul connection. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Curiosity wakes us up, opens the door of the heart. It fosters connection, compassion, and positivity. It engages the heart. It blesses the curious, and it blesses those who we are curious about. It blesses our relationships. Curiosity helps us find more love.
Amen. Blessed be.