Communication Managing Self

Listen with curiosity

Written by Julia Menard

When I’m called in to help work relationships which have gotten unproductive or toxic, one of the things I do is coach the conflicted parties before they enter into any kind of joint meeting. One of the things we tend to work on is how they can express themselves in a way that ups their chances of being heard. We talk about listening with curiosity.

This idea of listening with curiosity comes from my experiences coaching at The Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute. My job there is to work with learners who are practicing how to do interest-based negotiation and/or mediation. I sit with four or five students for a whole day and help them work through tough conversations, stopping and starting and analyzing what goes into making them productive.

One particular story brings this whole idea of listening with curiosity into clear focus. The story is that many years ago, I was coaching someone who was having a hard time hearing the other person. The questions he was using were leading ones – the kind familiar to a trial lawyer. We all knew what he was getting at because closed, leading questions telegraph the thoughts of the questioner.

It wasn’t going over well with the other person playing his opponent.

On a hunch, I asked the person trying to practice his skills if he could do two things:

  1. I asked him to stop, put one hand on his belly (and a second hand could go on the heart area) and to feel his feet on the ground (tapping them slightly or pushing them in the ground is ever better). And take a deep breath or two.
  2. Then I simply asked him to take a good look at the other person across from him. Did he have any idea how his words were landing on that person? No. What did he think the other person was thinking, feeling, wanting? No idea. Okay then, I invited: “get curious”. This little phrase “get curious” is one of our mantras at the Centre.

After those two prompts, he started back into the role play. Lo and behold – it was like a tiny miracle had happened! He was asking open questions – the kinds that make another person want to open up. This skill was something he apparently had no idea how to do only 2 minutes previously and now was able to connect easily through hearing with curiosity.

Needless to say, I’ve repeated this little intervention with other students over the years many times – always with good results. Try it:

The next time you notice the other person not listening to you – stop yourself. You could put one hand on your belly, maybe a second on your heart. Feel your feet.

Then take a good look at that other person. Are you curious about their world? If not, get curious! Let me know what happens!

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

… Henry David Thoreau


About the author

Julia Menard

Have you ever wondered why you can be so calm and rational for your clients, but when it comes to your own life, stress can creep in so easily? That’s the quest I set out on when, after 20 years as a mediator, my own marriage disintegrated. I teamed up with a therapist from Portland, and we wrote a book that captures much of what I’ve learned over the last five years about finding a the calm in the chaos. Hold On To Yourself: How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations is the result. If you are interested in mindfulness, finding the leader within and engaging the gifts in conflict, then check out my website and sign up for my free monthly newsletter at:

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