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  December 29, 2011 
Genuine Curiosity 

"What you DON'T know will surprise you, if you let it" 

By: Lorraine Esposito 

Genuine curiosity occurs when you allow what you don’t know to be more interesting than what you already know-or think you know. We all start out naturally curious, but soon experience begins to teach us about the world-making genuine curiosity less automatic.

The Paradox

It’s another paradox you know, that the very thing that enables us to lead our children effectively and keep them safe also hinders our ability to lead them effectively and keep them safe. Quickly judging situations is a very good thing; in fact, it’s one big reason the human species has been able to evolve and survive. Our brains are wired so that we can use what we know to help us quickly learn what we don’t know. This is our associative memory in action, helping us to repeat behaviors that work and to stop doing things that don’t work. What makes genuine curiosity tricky for parents is not just the unconscious nature of our associative memory; it’s really the emotional charge we attach to the memories that makes it so tough. Another part of our unconscious mind attaches the emotions sadness, aggression, joy and fear to our long-term memories. These emotions cause our automatic and unconscious reaction to environmental triggers. In fact, the power of these emotions acts so quickly that they can move our bodies into action before we are even consciously aware of the need to act. Think about swerving in your car to avoid something; often we don’t know what we were avoiding until after we are free of the danger.

I think it safe to say that, even though being genuinely curious may sound simple, it isn’t really so easy a thing to do. Becoming genuinely curious is a skill that requires practice. While it’s a very good thing to learn from past experiences, it isn’t necessary all the time and shouldn’t be on auto pilot. We need to learn how to question our reactions so that we can respond with conscious intent. Once we can master this skill we are able to learn again.

“I have learned the novice can often see things that the expert overlooks. All that is necessary is not to be afraid of making mistakes, or of appearing naïve.” Abraham Maslow

Top 10 Benefits of Genuine Curiosity

  1. Opens you to learning something new (creating new brain cells, changing old habits) 
  2. Relieves the burden and stress of needing to be right all the time 
  3. Gives you a puzzle to work out―stimulating 
  4. Connects you to others because they might have answers you’ll need 
  5. You feel smarter asking good questions vs. having a few canned answers to defend 
  6. Allows you to be more human as you allow others to be more human, too 
  7. You look for reasons and results vs. motives and agendas 
  8. Fosters better relationships because you’re less judgmental and confronting 
  9. You have more options available to you in every situation 
  10. You realize just how little you know, yet you feel so wise 
A Good Student
When you practice genuine curiosity with your child you show him how it looks to be confident and open. You show him how to continue to learn throughout his life and to be a strong leader. The very best leaders know how to listen and learn from others. We have the obligation to be strong leaders so that we can foster strong leadership in our children. Learn how to listen and you’ll start learning all over again.

Are you asking me or telling me?
For you to get an honest answer from your child, you must first be sure you’ve asked an honest question. An honest question is one that is genuinely curious. We all know what it’s like to be asked a “statement,” right? When someone is trying to persuade you in one way or another you’ll often get a rhetorical question―for which no answer is expected. The speaker is just telling you to agree with his or her view of something. As an adult I don’t like this kind of sneaky persuasion, but I’m experienced enough to recognize it and I have the authority to override the speaker’s intent, if I chose. A child may not have such experience and often has no authority to override the power of the speaker-especially if you are the speaker.

Pointed Fingers
Rhetorical questions from parents come in all shapes and sizes. You have your basic pointed question: “Why did you hit your brother?” Depending on the tone and facial expression, you may have actually asked, “Why did you deliberately act without sufficient provocation and with the intention of causing bodily harm to a person you are supposed to love but must actually care nothing for?” (Inhale). The answer you get may be somewhat honest, but it’s likely to be either defensive (which is only half of the whole truth) or passive (because he believes he could never explain well enough to satisfy your anger). The basic pointed question leaves little room for saving pride and feeling good about learning from a mistake. I call them pointed questions because they are pointing at character flaws rather than a flaw in judgment or choice. These kinds of questions are harmful to confidence, trust, self-respect and self-worth because they send a signal to your child that, in times of high emotion, your true feelings about him are revealed: You don’t think much of him and perhaps don’t like him very much. He won’t know that something in the situation may have triggered emotions in you that are completely unrelated to him. He will just think it’s all about how rotten you think he is.

I’ve Got You Now

Another example of rhetoric is the string of leading questions that begins with a set up:

"Do you know the rule about markers in the living room?"

Of course she remembers . . . now.  The set-up leads to the first demonstration of your effort and patience:

"Do you remember the last time we talked about this?"

Of course she remembers . . . now.  This first example is good, but for many parents, it's still not enough, and so:

"Do you remember you said you wouldn’t use markers in the living room again?" 

Maybe she remembers--maybe not.  Chances are she tuned you out the last time you scolded--especially if it was a set up like this time.  She's going to take your word for it now though because you've already got her nodding in agreement and she's scared.  Once she nods, you are ready to close:

"Then why are you coloring with markers in the living room?"

And the crowd goes wild!! (insert applause) You've won! She was outwitted by your cleverness.

Fault and Blame

This is your ego at work and it feels so condescending. What we’re saying is this: “I’m doing everything right and you’re doing everything wrong.” We’re trying to impress ourselves and our children by explaining in detail the great lengths we’ve gone to in order to be a good parent. We’ve done all the right things by explaining the rules, reminding about past mistakes and reaffirming past agreements; therefore, any fault in the results couldn’t possibly be ours. “It’s all your fault!” We box them into a corner of shame and that wreaks havoc on a personality. Shame makes you hang your head and slink away. We use guilt and shame as tools to manipulate and punish. And boy, it sure works, too―but not just in the moment we think it justifiable (the short game); it continues to do its dirty work into the long game, as well. Sometimes people compensate for shame by becoming intolerant, perfectionistic, shy or withdrawn. That’s not what we want, is it? We don’t want to cause this kind of damage just because he was coloring on the couch, do we? (Yes, leading and pointed questions. You caught me.)

I See Your Meaning

For children, it’s even more important to be genuinely curious when asking questions. They are gifted with an ability to read your emotions very well. Their survival instinct is to be acceptable to you-to please you-so that you’ll keep them close and protect them. They are acutely aware of all the little things you say and do because they are watching for signs of acceptability. When verbal and nonverbal cues are out of alignment, the words spoken convey only 7% meaning to the listener; the other 93% of your meaning is gathered by your tone, facial expressions, gestures, and so on. There is no faking genuine curiosity.

So when you ask your children a question having already predetermined the answer you expect to hear, you disconnect the truth of their feelings and thoughts from them―and from you as well. Their need for your acceptance or attention prevents anyone from actually understanding anything real about the situation. Without freedom and permission to be honest, no one will learn from the mistake.

Related Articles:

Related Tip of the Week:  Expectation Guilt

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