Curious or Critical?

Most leaders consider themselves to be open-minded and willing to hear new ideas or try a different process. However, self reflection may reveal that (if we are honest), most of us (myself included) are often only open to the new ideas around topics and beliefs we are not overly attached or invested in. For example, most of us would welcome a new idea on the best way to climb Mt. Everest vs a new idea on how to best motivate your employees.  This happens because our opinions or beliefs are part of our identity, which means that when we allow competing or differing opinions space in our brains, it can feel like an attack on who we are. We may even feign ‘openness’ with leading questions designed to lead people back to our opinion, without taking the time to truly understand their idea or point of view. If we want to be effective as leaders (as well as better friends, parents or any other role we play) we must decide to be genuinely more curious and less critical. 

A young child asks questions because she genuinely wants to learn and is still in the process of forming her opinions and beliefs. As adults many of our opinions and beliefs stem from our own experiences ranging from things we learned from our parents to debates in college classrooms to successes and failures in our businesses. Collectively, these experiences can cause us to form biases and to make assumptions without ‘testing’ those assumptions. And if we are unaware of our biases, we ignore any evidence that threatens our assumptions and opinions. 

True growth and wisdom is the result of continual learning. When we have new information, we should feel an obligation to question whether we should ‘change our minds’. That is what learning is! To stubbornly cling to a belief in the face of clear and mounting evidence to the contrary (which happens often….see my last article on CEO disease) is the opposite of growth and learning. True curiosity can be an antidote to stubborn resistance. 

In a recent conversation with Susan Scott, she recommended the book, How to Have Impossible Conversations by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. In it, the authors coin the term “the Unread Library Effect” to refer to our tendency as humans to believe we know more than we actually know.  If we want to be better leaders, parents, and community members; we must begin by examining our own hearts and minds and unearth long held biases and beliefs that are no longer true (and perhaps never were) or no longer serve us well. It is important to remember that our brains are hardwired to seek confirmation of our beliefs, not to take in any new information that dispels our beliefs.  

It is also important to understand the difference between facts and truths. Truths are often closer to opinions than facts.  My truths may not be the same as those of my daughters, my colleagues or employees. Learning to truly be curious about the beliefs or truths of others and to work toward understanding (which does not mean agreement) and being open to changing our own beliefs and opinions can open doors both professionally and personally.  

In a recent Clarity Break, I realized that I am open-minded about most things. I also realized that I have much work to do in a few areas where my identity is wrapped up in a handful of ideas and beliefs. When I enter into conversations that challenge those, I immediately go into response mode (jump right into critical) instead of understanding (Stepehen Covey’s 2nd Habit:  Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond).  My challenge to all of us is to recognize our hard-wiring that seeks to confirm our long-held beliefs and biases (acknowledging you have them is a huge first step) and lean into the discomfort of questioning our deep-seeded truths and beliefs. Real growth happens once we get uncomfortable and genuinely curious about the world around us. 


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