The Curiosity Superpower

The Curiosity Superpower

When asked what my greatest strength is, I can answer quickly. It’s curiosity. This is also one of the core values I hold dear to my heart. As a child, my curiosity was a double-edged sword. I took apart things that couldn’t be put back together again. I found myself in trees that I couldn’t quite climb down from. I asked far more questions than my Sunday School teachers would have preferred. My bug and rock collection rivaled small museum installations. Perhaps my parents thought it would wear off with childhood, but it turns out that my curiosity was there to stay.

As many an engineer will understand, I had what the Dilbert cartoon adaptation of the comic strip refers to as The Knack. In the cartoon, upon young Dilbert receiving this diagnosis, his distraught mother asks tearfully, “Can he lead a normal life?” To which the supposed medical professional responds, “No. He’ll be an engineer.” Sobs ensue. In the cartoon version, The Knack is accompanied by not just an uncanny skill for repairing items but also “utter social ineptitude.”

I’m here to disagree. My hypothesis is that The Knack is actually rooted in curiosity: An overwhelming desire to understand how things work and why they are the way they are. In fact, curiosity is the common thread between my former life as an engineer and my current life as a leadership and executive coach.

So, what makes curiosity such a superpower, and how can you leverage it in your personal and professional life? We’ll explore this from an internal perspective, an external perspective, and a relational perspective.

The Internal Power of Curiosity

Curiosity is a foundational pillar of coaching. It is the ultimate tool in disrupting the signals that cause anxiety, worry and stress. As coaches, we will often refer to the “anxious brain” and the “curious brain” when supporting a client through a challenging situation. When our Anxious Brain is in the driver’s seat, it’s asking fear based questions that are usually closed ended. “Will I be successful?” “Am I good enough?” “Will someone be upset with me?” The stakes are always high and we’ve often personalized the issue.

When we can engage our curious brain, suddenly, we are lifted above the situation as an observer or a researcher. Our curious brain asks open ended questions like, “What makes this difficult for me?” “What are my options here?” “What evidence do I have that I can do this?” The questions don’t always need to have a positive slant for them to be effective. If you are worried about something, you can still ask yourself, “What are the risks here that I am trying to mitigate?”

By bringing curiosity to bear, you are engaging the active, empowered part of your brain responsible for what Nobel Prize winning psychologist, economist and author Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2” thinking, i.e., the part of the brain that handles complicated math problems and solving puzzles. You are also activating the parasympathetic nervous system which manages our “rest and digest” functioning.

The anxious brain, on the other hand, is reactive. It is keeping watch for risks in order to give the sympathetic nervous system a fight or flight signal. Imagine the emotional and physical feeling associated with the question, “What if I embarrass myself?” Chances are, your body will begin to respond in nearly imperceptible ways, perhaps with a slightly elevated heart rate and blood pressure, maybe a subtle narrowing of peripheral vision. Your brain is readying your body to handle a dangerous situation.

By switching to a curious mindset and focusing the brain on information gathering, we can shift from fight or flight to rest and digest, from fast thinking reactivity to slow thinking responsiveness.

Here are some examples of questions that can help us move from an anxious brain mindset to a curious brain one:

  • Instead of “I’m worried I’m not good enough,” try “What are the skills that would help me feel ready?”
  • Instead of “I feel stuck,” try “What choices are available to me right now?”
  • Instead of “I don’t like this situation,” try “What is it about this situation that is unsettling for me?”

The Curiosity Superpower

The Problem Solving Power of Curiosity

While curiosity can certainly help us maintain a more calm, collected and effective inner world through reframing, it can also help us tackle the challenges of our external world. Our brains have evolved to continually use shortcuts (also known as “heuristics”) to keep us alive. These shortcuts are churning away in the background to keep us from being eaten by lions, tigers and bears. Unfortunately, they can sometimes be a bit too effective, and we will unwittingly make decisions based on inaccurate biases and assumptions. By actively fostering a curious mindset, you can counteract your natural biases and blind spots as you tackle the challenges in front of you.

One helpful way to do this is to dust off your memories of high school chemistry lab and the trusty Scientific Method. When you’re faced with a puzzle to solve, whether that’s troubleshooting a first stage inlet separator or streamlining a recruitment and onboarding process, it’s important to maintain a level of curiosity, even when (or especially when), you think you know the answer. That possible answer can serve as your hypothesis. And what do we do with hypotheses? We test them! We go searching for information that will indicate whether or not our hypothesis is correct.

The terminology here is important. Notice that I did not suggest we try to prove our hypothesis to be true. Rather, we’re asking objective questions that will reveal more information. In the case of troubleshooting the inlet separator, there is probably a discrete cause and solution to be found. In the case of streamlining an HR process, there are likely multiple solutions that could work. By maintaining curiosity as long as possible, you are maximizing the diversity of options that you may generate.

Here are some great questions to prompt curiosity in problem solving:

  • What does an ideal outcome look like?
  • What do we know so far, and how do we know it?
  • What information are we missing and how can we acquire it?
  • What viewpoints are we missing in this conversation?
  • What are some off-the-wall ways that we could solve this problem?

The Relational Power of Curiosity

Perhaps the use of curiosity that is most valuable to me is in relating to other human beings with empathy and compassion. This can span the spectrum of closeness from treasured loved ones, to workplace colleagues, to strangers from another culture and continent. For those of us leading teams, curiosity is a foundational skill that allows for active listening and empathy.

The late business theorist, psychologist and MIT professor Edgar Schein explored this leadership skill in depth in his book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. How often have you found yourself in a conversation, only to realize that you don’t remember what your counterpart said because you were thinking about what you would say next, or how you’d get your own point across? Curiosity can help us remain in the present moment, adjusting our questions based on the additional information we are gleaning. It can also help us avoid the dreaded Advice Monster (as coined by author Michael Bungay Stanier): The common tendency for us to give advice instead of asking questions.

In a world that is filled with conflict, strife and inflammatory rhetoric, it can be easy for us to lose sight of each other’s humanity. If you find yourself immediately distrustful of someone, this is a great opportunity for curiosity.

Some questions that can help foster empathy through curiosity are:

  • What assumptions am I making about this person’s intentions? What do I know as fact?
  • What values might be important to them?
  • How might I be similar to this person? What commonality do we share?
  • What could a good interaction with this person look like?

The Case for Curiosity

When facing an absence of information, we can sometimes create our own narratives and fill in the gaps incorrectly. This might mean allowing our biases to lead the way, for example, assuming that we know the best course of action for a friend despite not being in their shoes. Or it could mean letting our fears lead the way, such as assuming the worst case scenario if we don’t hear from a loved one when we would have expected.

Whether reframing your own situation or relating to others, as an individual contributor or a leader within an organization, curiosity is often the enabler that allows us to broaden our perspective and be most effective.

Author profile
Erica D’eramo

Engineer by trade. Diversity, equity and inclusion professional by choice. With a successful two decade career in the international energy industry, and having been one of the few women in her field, Erica D’Eramo has made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. She is passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. In 2016, D’Eramo founded Two Piers Consulting to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide companies with the tools and strategies to effectively create and grow truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University, and an Executive MBA from University of Texas at Austin.

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