July 2015

Be Curious

Your Conversations Will Be More Effective

Getting curious is the antithesis of reacting defensively. It requires that the listener is able to quiet his/her nervous system and find true curiosity.

Questions that come from a defensive attitude sound and feel like an attack or an inquisition. Often, as people are learning how to shift their own attitude, they start with a behavioral shift and start asking questions. Though this is often received better than a defensive reaction like, “You're wrong. You don't know what you're talking about,” it is still experienced as an attack.

However, when someone really shifts into their true curiosity, the question comes out differently and is often heard as sincere.

This month, we'll focus on how to drop into an attitude of curiosity and how to create questions from that state.

The Sally & Donna Show ended last month with Tom asking Sally why she is so unhappy at work that she wants to leave, while Donna has just been asked by her boss Lorin, to work with Sally and help her acclimate to the company's culture. Let's revisit them each in turn to see what happens next...


Sally begins to shake. Then she starts crying. Holding back her tears is futile but she is trying desperately to do so. She grabs her purse and gets up to go to the ladies room.

Tom puts his hand on her arm and says gently, “Sally, it is okay to cry. I'm sure you have lots of feelings bottled up. I'm okay with tears. Why don't you sit back down and tell me what's happening?” Like a small child, Sally sits back down and continues crying.

“I don't kow what's happening to me,” she squeaks out between her sobs.

“Take your time, there's no hurry,” Tom says, handing her some napkins. Sally's sobs turn to sniffles. She wipes her face, looks at Tom, and starts crying again.

“I'm so sorry,” Sally's words tumble out. “I've never been like this. Never ever. I also have never had a boss who cared so much. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever had someone show me so much care. I feel so embarassed.” Sally starts breathing very hard. She is looking away from Tom and is working very hard not to cry.

Tom waits a few moments and then says, “Sally, it is okay to have feelings here. I understand that you are going through something very unsettling. Take your time and when you're ready, tell me what's happening.”

Sally is using every ounce of will power to hold back her sobs. Every once in a while, she gasps for breath, sobs, then quiets herself. Almost inaudibly, she says to Tom, “I don't think I can talk now.”

“That's okay, I can wait,” Tom says quietly. “But let's go up to my office where we'll have privacy. People are starting to arrive.”

Sally nods in agreement and gathers up her purse and the napkins. She sighs deeply. “I'll go up the back stairs. I don't want to see anyone.”

“Okay,” Tom responds. “I'll go that way also.” Tom leads the way. Sally gets in step behind him, but he slows down to walk side by side with her. They walk to the service elevator in the back of the building and go up to Tom's office. Tom opens the door, Sally enters and then looks around to decide where to sit. There is a seat across from Tom's desk, a small table with seats, and a sofa and comfortable chairs around a coffee table.

Seeing Sally's glance and indecision, Tom says, “sally, let's sit on the comfortable chairs.”

Sally goes to the stuffed chair and sits down. With her head down, she almost whispers, “I'm so sorry Tom. I'm just not used to this. It's never happened to me before.”

“It's okay Sally, really,” Tom answers, nodding. “Just take your time. No worries.”

They sit in silence for a few minutes. Sally looks at Tom. He looks back with concern and caring.

“I wish you weren't so nice,” Sally says. “You're making it harder for me.”

“I guess that's my job” Tom responds, smiling.

“If it weren't for Carolyn...” Sally's voice trails off.

“Sally, let's talk about what's really going on. It's okay to tell me, honestly,” Tom says.

“Are you saying you don't believe me?” Sally asks in a defensive tone.

“If it really is Carolyn, I want to hear,” Tom responds. “But I really do think something else is going on.”

Sally looks at Tom, searching his face for clues. She shakes her head back and forth. “I can't tell you, Tom. I wish I could.” She pauses for a full minute, then continues, “You just won't understand. I don't understand.”

“Just try me,” Tom answers. “I really would like to understand.” Again, Sally searches his face for clues. This time, it is clues to see if he is sincere.

While Sally is deciding what to say to Tom, let's find out what's happening with Donna...

Donna gathers what she needs for her next meeting and walks down the hall. She stops in to say hello to some folks she didn't see in the morning and then gets on the elevator. She walks into a meeting of her peers. She says hello to several people and then finds a seat.

They go through a lighting round. A few people have announcements, then they switch gears and review the agenda. The big issue on the agenda is workforce planning, focusing specifically on succession planning. Lorin, who is running the meeting, asks everyone to split into groups and list the issues they are grappling with regarding workforce planning.

The team breaks into groups, and immediately there is a hum in the room from a high level of participation. Looking around the room, Donna sees full engagement, people having fun yet focusing on the issues at hand, deep listening, rigorous questions, and true collaboration. Donna is keenly aware of how well her small group is functioning and how sweet it feels. It is so different from her experience in the company she worked for prior to her accident.

After a short period of time, Lorin brings the sub-groups back together and one person from each group presents the list they have created. After the three groups present their independent lists, Lorin works with the whole team to consolidate the lists into one and prioritize it.

Then she turns to the group and asks Sayaka, a bright, soft spoken team lead to take over the leadership and guide the group toward asking open ended questions that will lead to solutions for the top three priorities. Sayaka blushes a bit, nods, and goes to the podium where she can see and speak to the whole group. Skillfully, Sayaka presents a structure for the group that will support them in finding creative solutions.

Watching Sayaka, Donna feels so much admiration. She is moved by how Lorin develops her people. She is also moved by seeing Sayaka maintain her own style and still be completely effective. All of her peers look with respect and admiration at Sayaka as she is guiding them. It is truly a learning laboratory. Again, she is overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and joy.

Sayaka asks Donna something, taking her out of her reverie.

“I'm so sorry, Sayaka,” Donna apologizes. “Would you repeat your question? I was lost in a moment of gratitude at being in this company and admiration for Lorin and for you. So sorry. Now I'm back.”

Sayaka smiles and laughs gently. “I understand. No worries,” she responds. Then she repeats her question and the meeting progresses.


As we peek into Sally's world, it is painfully clear that she does not get curious about herself, nor does she get curious about others. Her typical reaction is defensive. She blames and shames herself when she notices that she is not performing as she thinks she should. She does the same towards others. Hence, working for Sally, or for that matter engaging with her in any way, is not a picnic. Tom, on the other hand, is extremely patient with her and compassionate. His curiosity about what is really going on for her grows out of his perception and his compassion. What an amazing boss to have!

Donna is someone who seems a natural at being curious. However, she knows that she has come to this with practice. She grew up in a family that had their fair share of defensiveness, and she often catches herself before the words in her mind pop out of her mouth. She has learned to slow down, breathe, and get curious. She has learned a lot due to this new pattern that she's established. When she is curious, she hears all kinds of things that are different than the assumptions she's making in her head. Curiosity is serving her well.

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