I realized recently how little time we seem to have to get to know each other.
Without really intending it, our lives have become increasingly compartmentalized. We go to work, get our stuff done, and fit in all the daily to-dos like eating, bathing, shopping, commuting.
We try to keep our relationships going, from small talk at the water cooler to connecting with kids and partners at the end of the day. We see friends and extended family every once and a while, but with everyone’s busy schedules it feels like a game of catch up — we chat about what’s new and what everyone has been doing since the last time we met.
If we have close relationships and we see that someone is really struggling, we lean in and ask them how they’re doing. If they want to share and trust us enough to show some vulnerability, sometimes they’ll tell us the truth. And sometimes they will just say “everything’s fine” and close the conversation.
I am guilty of being a huge compartmentalizer, even though I am a therapist and I know better. While I am truly ok with showing my vulnerability to most people, I have become acutely aware of the social conventions which prohibit deep, authentic sharing.
Our lives have become so busy that we just don’t have time to go into a deep conversation — when schedules are tight a few minutes to chat may be all we have.
There are times when we feel we can’t share what we really feel, what we’re really going through, because we don’t know each other well enough to go there. It may seem that some topics are off limits to non-intimate company: our hopes, dreams, desires, fears.
If we are able to share these with anyone, they are limited to our very closest intimates whom we trust implicitly. But if there is any fear of judgment or rejection from our loved ones, or if we judge ourselves for these feelings, we might still hold back.
Even if these topics are not off limits and we have the time and intention to share our true selves with the people we care about, many of us haven’t learned how to ask the questions that lead to deeper connection.
The difficulty with these social conventions is that they don’t allow us to deepen the bonds of intimacy and create a solid sense of love and friendship. Who we are and how we feel remains on the surface level, even with those with whom we spend most of our time.
How do we go deeper? We need to practice radical curiosity.
What is radical curiosity?
Radical curiosity is a term I use to describe the process of deepening connection.
When we are curious, we ask questions. We take an active interest in someone or something. We want to learn and understand more.
Simple curiosity is just having a question, asking it, and getting an answer. Simple curiosity is satisfied quickly and easily. Simple curiosity has an expectation of what the response will be. It has the intention of fulfilling a need for information by the questioner.
Radical curiosity, however, is all in the follow up. Every question goes deeper. They are open-ended questions, building on each other.
Radical curiosity is not about the person who is being curious, but about getting to know more about the other person. Therefore, radical curiosity respects boundaries: it isn’t to satisfy our nosiness, it isn’t about performing an interrogation, and it isn’t about asking questions so we can judge the answers. We aren’t looking for someone else to reinforce our own beliefs or emotional pain. It’s not about us at all.
When practising radical curiosity to deepen your relationships, be aware of who benefits. Are you merely satisfying your own needs, or wanting other person to feel heard, seen & understood?Who benefits from curiosity? The information seeker or the person who needs to be understood?Click To Tweet
Radical curiosity has the intention of forming deeper bonds, but the person being questioned needs to feel the authenticity of your questions.
We all know when we are engaging with someone who respects us and truly wants to get to know us, versus someone who is asking questions for the purpose of getting information or just making conversation.
How curiosity and empathy intersect
The foundation of true connection with others is empathy.
In essence, empathy is about being present with another person’s experience. It is deep presence. Empathy requires listening to understand someone else’s feelings, without trying to fix them or judge them or stand apart from them. Empathy says, “I’m here with you, even if it all really sucks right now and let’s acknowledge how that really feels.”
Empathy requires you to step into their perspective, letting go of your own lenses, assumptions, and opinions. It’s not about what has happened in the past or what they are going to do in the future. It’s about the here and now — the experience in the present moment.
Radical curiosity an integral part of empathy. While empathy is mostly listening and being present, curiosity steps in to deepen the experience.
While we are all connected as human beings, we are still separate individuals with our own subjective feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. We cannot presume to know what the other person is thinking without applying our own subjective assumptions to their experience.
That is why curiosity is so important — it makes us ask questions instead of presuming.
“How are you really feeling about this?” is a question of curiosity. “You must be feeling awful” may come across as empathetic, but it is also a presumption.
Curiosity asks us to follow up the questions with more questions, and empathy asks us to deeply listen to and honour the answers. There is an interplay between the two which forms the dance of intimacy. It is really an art form, one which needs regular practice and fine-tuning.
Imperfect and good enough
The dance of intimacy — of which the skills of curiosity and empathy are the foundations — is never perfect. Sometimes two people dance together smoothly and beautifully, and sometimes they’re stomping on each other’s feet, out of step with the beat.
We don’t have to do this perfectly. If we miss a step, we can try again another time. If we recognize that there is always a learning curve to adopting new skills, we’ll allow ourselves a bit of leeway. And if we also extend patience to those whom we wish would be curious and empathetic with us, we know that it is not always easy.
There is no perfect in relationships, but there is “good enough.” It just takes a true intention to come towards each other, instead of keeping each other at arm’s length.
In today’s busy world, there often isn’t time to get into deep, intense conversations with everybody we meet and like. It’s just not practical. But we can still practice curiosity and empathy within our wider communities by asking open-ended questions and listening with presence instead of assumptions.
In our close relationships, however, we desperately need to practice radical curiosity along with empathy. Otherwise, we may miss out on some wonderful aspects of the people we love. In turn, their experience of feeling known will hopefully open them up to getting to know you just as well.
Here are five elements of the practice of radical curiosity:
- Building trust. In our society, we still aren’t really comfortable with vulnerability. Before we share aspects of ourselves, we have to really trust that our revelations will be held gently, without judgment or fear of the consequences. It’s really important to know whom you trust, and who trusts you. This trust is built over time and its foundation is empathy.
- Awareness of intention. Sometimes when we’re being questioned by people, we might not know their intentions up front, and they may not be aware of them either. They may be on an information hunt but we may feel like they’re about to hit us up for a favour. They think they’re being friendly but we think they’re being gossipy and judgmental. The same goes for you: Before you start asking questions, check your intention. Is this a conversation that would serve a greater understanding or deeper connection, or do you just want a certain piece of information?
- Focus on the feelings. If you focus on the feelings of an experience, it helps you align with someone in order to understand their perspective. They are more likely to feel heard. “Wow, that meeting got heated. I noticed that voices got raised a lot and it made me really uncomfortable so I wanted to get the hell out of there. How did you feel about that? How did you experience that meeting?”
- Open ended questions. This is a simple rule of conversation-making that is often overlooked. When we have expectations of what an answer might be, we tend to be satisfied when we receive any kind of response that looks like that. “How are you?” “Fine.” “Did you agree with Bob’s take of the meeting?” “Yeah.” Instead, if we can try to keep an open mind about the response we may receive, our questions begin to open up a conversation that goes in an unexpected but nicely surprising direction.
- Awareness of receptivity. If you are practising radical curiosity and you’re noticing that someone looks closed off (they’re looking away, crossing their arms, not paying attention, not asking you questions in return, etc.), then they aren’t as interested as you in deepening the conversation. It may just be timing, or convenience, or you could be reading them incorrectly. Perhaps trust needs to be built first. Perhaps they aren’t comfortable with sharing. If that is the case, then back off for now and re-approach another time. If they still don’t respond to your curiosity, then it may be a relationship that either needs more time, or one that remains fairly closed. Not all relationships can be deep and intimate, or even casually open and empathetic. But there will be others who will be receptive to your warmth and enthusiasm.
We’d love it if you could pass on your own wisdom and tell us how you practice radical curiosity in your own life.
How does it impact your relationships?
How do you feel when someone is curious about you?
How do you know when you’re ready to trust someone and share your feelings, thoughts, and opinions in an intimate way?
Please leave a comment and share your insights below.
Keep shining the insight light,