I was doing my morning reading today and I came across a few posts and thoughts the value of opposing ideas, disagreement, and controversy and it reminded me of the value of curiosity when we are going about our daily lives. More and more often we see leaders just “speaking louder” on the belief that if they just talk louder they will convince more people to agree with their position (as radical as it might be). We see our friends and family getting into comment wars on social media and posting articles and ideas that are clearly intended to create tension and disagreement. We see people who are shocked by the fact that there are people with ideas and opinions that don’t align perfectly with their own.
We see more and more people with a clear false consensus bias which is reducing the quality of our societal conversation (and making it very challenging to maintain our own curiosity).
False Consensus Bias = People have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which other people think the same way that they do.
The solution to the challenge is housed in the old proverb “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back”. Being curious has been associated with risk taking and danger because most people only remember the first part of the proverb. When you include the full quote you realize that the satisfaction that comes from curiosity is actually the antidote to the challenges we are seeing today – more curiosity will mean less “volume” in our disagreements.
Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to know or learn something, and it is my belief that it is the antidote to this negativity we are seeing. If we are able to force ourselves to be more curious we can eliminate our false consensus bias, reduce the volume of our conversations, and potentially learn more about each other and the source of our individual ideas and opinions. It is through a genuine curiosity that we can change the dynamic of our conversations and move toward alignment and resolution within our organizations, teams, and groups.
But how do we become more curious? I believe that much like any of the skills we are working to develop we need to exercise our curiosity muscle by practicing our curiosity. In my reading I found a couple of great exercises that I am going to start using myself to continue to improve my curiosity muscle.
Learn About A New Subject
This is one that is simple, takes very little time, can be done on your own in a few minutes of down time, and as an added bonus is fun! Learn about a new subject.
You aren’t striving to become an expert on a new subject, only to expand your awareness and knowledge on a new topic that you have some interest in. Wondering how your car engine works? Curious about being an entrepreneur? Interested in learning more about the origins of a type of music? There are an endless supply of potential questions that you can explore and the Internet is your friend when looking to learn.
If you’re a reader like me then you may want to check out Feedly as a place to search and learn. You can enter a topic in their search bar and find hundreds (or thousands) of blogs and news sources that are writing about that topic that you can read quickly (and go back to regularly as you have time). If you prefer more visual/video type learning there are almost an endless number of “how-to” or educational videos on YouTube that you can leverage for your learning journey. Or perhaps you like to have more structure in your learning in which case you can check out one of the online course providers like Coursera or Skillshare to see if there are any online courses you can take to expand your knowledge.
Get To Know More About People
Learning new things about people forces you to use some of your curiosity skills:
- Asking open ended questions
- Being genuinely interested in the responses
- Exploring other’s interests
- Shooting for the unknown answers (exploring new areas)
In sales one of the most powerful approaches I have found to engaging customers and building strong relationships is being curious. Harvey Mackay is one of my favourite leaders in this space and his “Mackay 66” tool can give you a great baseline for questions you may want to know about your customers or anyone you meet (or already know). I’m always amazed when I take a look through the questions how few I can probably answer even about some of my better friends.
Taking the time to work your curiosity muscles by exploring new things about the people who are already around you is a great way to practice those core curiosity skills that you need to see the differences when you come across a disagreement or difference of opinion.
Assume You Are Wrong
You may need to start out slow on this one since it is uncomfortable for many of us who have been successful in our life and career to believe that we are often wrong, but if you can do it you will likely learn a lot about yourself, your position, and those who you are working with to solve problems. One suggestion would be to force yourself to take this position at least once a week to get started, and then as you discover the benefit and become more comfortable with the approach start to do it more and more often until you are able to take the position every time you run into a disagreement with someone.
Essentially, approach the issue or disagreement with the assumption that you might be wrong this time. The reality is that you can’t possibly be right all the time, you are bound to be at least partially incorrect in many situations, and it’s possible that you are completely wrong in less frequent situations, so why do you always enter the conversation assuming that you are right?
Instead of convincing the other side of your own position or opinion, instead take the position that you are wrong and ask the other side to convince you… and mean it. Open your mind and your ears and listen to the reasons for their position with the assumption that you are at least partially wrong, and you’ll be amazed at what you can learn.
You may have overlooked some important information or one of your own biases may be working against you. Or perhaps you have some information or experience that others don’t have that you have overlooked and forgotten to share that might be important in gaining consensus. Either way the act of assuming you were wrong and listening to be convinced will open the door to common understanding and move you toward a better answer.
Advanced: The Controversial Opinion Game
Sean Blanda, co-founder of design magazine 99U offered up a game he plays with some of his trusted friends called the “Controversial Opinion Game”. In his words:
The rules are simple: Don’t talk about what was shared during Controversial Opinion afterward and you aren’t allowed to “argue” — only to ask questions about why that person feels that way. Opinions can range from “I think James Bond movies are overrated” to “I think Donald Trump would make a excellent president.”
From his experience this game results in a lot of “consensus bias” busting as people share and discuss their reasons for their own positions on a controversial topic which is great on its own, but in my opinion the biggest value of this exercise is that it forces you to leverage the curiosity muscle as you inquire and explore your friends opinions. You will likely learn some interesting new things about your friends and how they view life through this approach, and you’ll also learn the value of that curious approach that you can use more frequently in other areas of your life.
You will want to make sure that you play this with people you trust though. The rules are simple but important and you need to be sure that the people you play with buy into the concept and support it.
As we look around us at the world we see more “volume” in the ideas and opinions than we ever have before. News agencies blasting their political agendas into our households 24/7, political candidates “yelling” their opinions and ideas at us in hopes that we will buy in, anonymous faces “tweeting” and “posting” their ideas and arguments in our social media feeds, and bosses and leaders asserting their ideas as the best and only path forward for an organization or team.
But the reality is that many of these ideas and opinions are not 100% wrong and not 100% right… the best answer is likely somewhere in the middle and it is through the power of curiosity that we will be able to find it and bring people together around it. Your job is to be that curious mind that can help to get us there.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but the enlightenment that from the learning that came from that curiosity brought him back.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.