Posts Tagged ‘curiosity’

I recently and gratefully stumbled across Fathom, a new online magazine. In particular, I deeply resonate with their vision:

Fathom wants to sink deeply into the Christian faith. And we think curiosity and conversation are just the things to draw us into the depths. We ask questions, express wonder, linger over ideas, listen to opinions, and hear people’s stories.

Indeed, curiosity is the theme of the inaugural issue and in the lead article Beautifully Unsatisfied, Brandon Giella writes:

At Fathom, we want to listen. We want to listen to you who agrees, to you who disagrees, and to you who are “very different from us, who say things we don’t get and believe things we don’t understand,” because this is a trustworthy space “for us to get curious in an attempt to understand.” This is a place of conversation, of both listening and responding.

Shouldn’t this describe our church gatherings? A space/place of “both listening and responding”? And yet, most Christians would rather seek refuge in certainty and answers without the process of exploring the questions and being open and curious to the possibilities. Of course, there is a time for settling on some answers, however tentative or tenuous, but we shouldn’t rush the process:

We want to be a place where we can get lost in the cave together, but not forever. An open mind is the same as an open mouth—it’s meant to close on some things.

We want to ask questions and find answers. Though we may not find much—many questions don’t have answers—the swimming is as important as the finding.

Let’s go “swimming”!

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“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

 – e.e. cummings

Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.

This is the question that Edgar Schein asks in the Introduction to his interesting and helpful book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, which I recently finished reading.

As one whose childhood curiosity has not lost its fervor as an adult, I am flabbergasted at how some people can be so disinterested in other people’s lives. Further on, Schein writes: “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” (emphasis mine)

In our Internet age when information on almost anything is available instantly, the problem of prescriptive pontification is even more prevalent, so Schein is surely right when he says, “we must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”

How does this have any bearing in a Christian context?  A lot. Paul the apostle instructs us to be mutually accountable to one another as disciples, in his repeated exhortation to “one anothering”. It is through genuine care for and curiosity in others through open conversations that we can disciple one another. Such authentic conversations lead “to a relationship [that is] sociologically equitable and balanced. If I want to build a relationship, I have to begin by investing something in it. Humble Inquiry is investing by spending some of my attention up front. My question is conveying to the other person, ‘I am prepared to listen to you and am making myself vulnerable to you.’”

For those in professions or leadership, the lack of curiosity can make us seem aloof or disinterested. The author gives an illustration from an incident involving his wife (emphasis mine):

When my wife Mary had her first bout of breast cancer in her 50s, we were sent to an oncologist who immediately conveyed to her an interest in her total personality and life situation through body language (intense attention and eye contact), through taking lots of time with questions, and always responding sympathetically (Humble Inquiry attitude). He asked her several general and personal questions before zeroing in on the medically related issues. My wife felt respected as a total human being and, therefore, felt more open in voicing her concerns about treatment.

What was striking was his questioning us about our other life priorities, which made Mary feel she could trust him totally.

Schein also explains the importance of leaders willing to listen to their subordinates, “[e]specially in the high hazard industries in which the problems of safety are paramount, I have learned that good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries are crucial.” While church is not a “high hazard” arena in the same way, that is not to say that there aren’t similar problems. Schein goes on (the emphasis is mine):

… a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden.  When I talk to senior managers, they always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates, and that they take the information seriously. However, when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment, so they concluded that their input wasn’t welcome and gave up. Shockingly often, they settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.

How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?

Sadly, we have seen far too many situations in churches where leaders chose to ignore concerns that members brought before them, and the results were devastating and tragic (think domestic abuse and child molestation).

Schein employs the Johari window to illustrate the complexity of communication in relation to our Socio-Psychological Self:
We all begin with our open self as we engage with another person. Schein explains that “As we converse with others, we send a variety of signals above and beyond the intentional ones that come from our open self. … Much of this information is passed without our being aware of it, so we must acknowledge that we also have a blind self, the signals we are sending without being aware that we are sending them, which nevertheless create the impression that others have of us.” In order for us to gain self-awareness into those areas that constitute our blind self, we can ask for honest feedback—something which most of us are loathe to receive and afraid to give.

Of course we also have our hidden self that we are hesitant to reveal for various reasons. The dilemma is we “realize that in a relationship-building process the most difficult issue is how far to go in revealing something that normally we would conceal, knowing at the same time that unless we open up more, we cannot build the relationship. … The reluctance we display when someone asks us for feedback mirrors the degree to which we are afraid to offend or humiliate. We duck the issue by trying to emphasize positive feedback, knowing full well that what we really are dying to hear from others is where they see us as wanting or imperfect, so that we can improve.” (emphasis mine)

In the course of a conversation, as we alternatively (and cautiously) ask and tell, the degree to which we open our door is dependent on how much we perceive the other is revealing. Schein goes on to say that “If these early revelations and questions are acknowledged and reciprocated, the relationship develops and allows ‘going deeper.’ But it has to be a slow and carefully calibrated process … before the relationship gets to the personal feedback stage, and even then it probably works best if it stays on task-related matters. Personal feedback remains dangerous even in an intimate relationship.” (emphasis mine) Because most of us are rather adverse to receiving honest feedback, this is an area I will explore further in the future (as I indicated at the end of a previous post), based on the insights from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen).

Schein summarizes:

Now imagine the conversation as a social seesaw with two people getting to know each other, a reciprocal dance of self-exposure through alternately questioning and telling based on curiosity and interest. Gradual self-exposure will occur either through answers to Humble Inquiry or by deliberate revelations. If these early self-revelations are accepted by the other, then gradually more personal thoughts and feelings are put out as a test of whether the other will still react positively to them. In each move, we claim a little more value for ourselves and thereby make ourselves a little more vulnerable. If the other person continues to accept us, we achieve a higher level of trust in each other. What we think of as intimacy can then be thought of as revealing more and more of what we ordinarily conceal. (emphasis mine)

Or, in reference to the Johari model again: We can reveal our hidden self through self-disclosure so that we can be more authentic. We can solicit feedback to help us discover our blind spots and become more self-aware. As we become more self-aware, we can uncover more about our unknown self through self-discovery, other’s observations and through shared discovery in an interpersonal and/or communal context.

The principles and practices of Humble Inquiry thus “functions as an invitation to be more personal and is therefore the key to building a more intimate relationship.”

Yes, obviously there are risks and hazards in expanding one’s Open Self. But the rewards of more genuine and intimate relations is worth it—at least for me. The challenge for me always is finding others who are willing to journey with me into the Blind, Hidden and the Unknown in our interactions.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

As The Who sang, Can you see the real me, can you?

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