Therapy, when you think about it, is a rather unique relationship. In a short period of time therapists often will transition from being complete strangers to having clients sharing some very personal stories and feelings. When I began my training as a therapist one of the first ideas that was focused on was the importance of nurturing and maintaining an open curiosity within our sessions. In being curious we acknowledged how much was unknown to us about our clients’ lives and invited our clients to help us understand their perspective.
Since then I’ve found that the idea of curiosity has often been on my mind. Curiosity wasn’t something that I thought about much prior to that point however. When thinking of the qualities that an aspiring therapist needed to cultivate, it was qualities such as patience, understanding, or compassion that were talked about but curiosity…not so much. Especially when looking outside of the therapeutic context, curiosity isn’t often listed as at the top of people’s virtue lists.
In our society we praise people for being kind, or brave, or wise but not often for being curious. Curious George may be a loveable character for many people, myself included, but you don’t often hear people aspiring to be like him. Curiosity is sometimes highlighted as being one of the characteristics of the young but as much as we idealize youth, we are less likely to praise youthful traits later in life.
The more I thought of this, the more I felt that perhaps we’d all benefit from a bit more curiosity in our lives. At the core, curiosity is about a desire for knowledge. it’s about wanting to find out what we don’t know, to expand our awareness and the scope of our view on the world. At the same time, curiosity is grounded in the awareness that we don’t have all the answers and that is ok. There’s a lack of judgement towards the information that you’re curious about and as an added bonus a lack of judgement on yourself for not knowing. When you think about it like that…it sounds pretty good eh.
There have been many times in my life where I have felt the urge to know the answer yesterday. whether it’s in figuring out a new task or creating a plan. I need to know. I need to know now. and it has to be right. It’s a lot of pressure and from what I’ve seen I’m definitely not alone in feeling this way. Often we don’t feel that it’s ok to learn, that the process of learning something is a challenge to overcome and not part of the goal itself. Allowing ourselves to be curious about how we want to proceed, about what we want to do, about what would happen if we did this, allows us to grow and learn and explore without worrying whether we’re doing the right thing. Generally we’ll get there in the end. when you watch a kid exploring a room, they may pick up something yucky or unpleasant first, but they generally don’t go back to it over and over again. When they eventually find the thing they really enjoy, that’s what they hold on to (whether it’s a fancy toy or a shoe).
Curiosity could have a big impact on our relationships too. Often, the foundation of many of our relationships with people is the sharing of knowledge and understanding. This is especially true of partners and close friends and family who we see as important parts of our lives. And yet, even with people that we have known all our lives, we still can’t know everything about them and with each passing moment they’re continuing to grow and change just like us. Invariably there will be times that people do things that don’t make sense, that surprise us or even at first glance, that really shock us.
How often has someone asked you “Why did you do that?” or “What were you thinking?” when they were surprised by something that you’ve done. Seeing someone do something different, or something that we don’t understand or something that seems out of character to us can be scary. It can be confusing. It can make us wonder whether we really know them. It’s easy in moments like that to jump to assumptions. To try, in our heads, to make sense of things so that the world isn’t so confusing anymore.
What would happen though, if instead of going into that rationalizing loop, and instead of challenging our partner(or friend or parent) when something feels wrong, if we took the approach of being curious, of realizing that we don’t understand and want to learn. Rather than a challenge or a judgement, being curious is an invitation. It invites the other person to share their point of view, to help us learn their perspective. In doing so, it both communicates our confusion and validates the fact that the other person probably had some reason than influenced them into doing, saying or feeling the way they do. The amazing thing is that when curiosity opens up the space for shared learning, it opens up space for incredible growth of both our relationships with each other and of ourselves in the process. It can also take away that pressure of having to always be right, or have the right answer, or even ask the right question. It allows the question to be just that…a question.