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December 11, 2023 Opinion & Commentary

How leaders can adopt a curiosity mindset

Bridget Cooper

When I encounter two leaders who are at each other’s throats, I find 100% of the time that they are both certain of their “facts”— yet one contradicts the other.

How is that possible? It’s not.

Thoughts aren’t facts. Certainty is an illusion. If they got curious about the other person’s perspective, they might notice that their certainty is really a collection of perceptions strung into a compelling story.

Your brain is doing what it does best when it plucks information out that delivers a sure and negative account, one you interpret as factual.

You know what you know, right? If a problem arises, you immediately know why it happened and who’s at fault.

These certain thoughts make you feel in control of what is, and what can be. It floods your brain with statements of certainty, convincing you of the story you are telling.

When you hold on to certainty, you narrow your choices and limit how to see the situation and possible responses.

We make negative statements of certainty, because our brain tilts toward the negative to protect us from external threats — not because the negative slant is true. The part of our brain that predicts positive or negative consequences is most active (aka stressed) when it doesn’t know what to expect.

Your brain’s antidote to fear and anxiety is control, or at least the illusion of it. We want to be viewed as smart and right by others, which reduces our social anxiety.

Funny thing: We’re smarter when we are more curious, and we’re more often right because we reach more informed conclusions.

How do you know you’re stuck in certainty? You: Make a lot of “I/we know” and “he/she/they is/are” statements; avoid questions you don’t already have a solid response for; are uneasy thinking about not knowing what’s going on.

Discovering new truths

To expand your choices, take a curiosity stance when drawn into a conversation, decision or action. Doing so roots out assumptions, those all-too convenient crutches we use to move swiftly from problem to solution.

Ask yourself, “Do I want to commit to this story, or get curious about it and consider how else I could see it?”

You are more apt to make fully informed, intentional decisions when you’re inquisitive. Curiosity embraces the unknown and boosts your awareness; it increases your choices; it maximizes your power.

As such, it requires a degree of confidence and comfort in uncertainty. Einstein promoted “holy curiosity” because he recognized that when we think we know everything, we fail to learn more, discover new truths, and change things for the better.

How do you get into a curiosity stance?

  • Ask “I wonder if/why/how?” and “how do I know?” and “what am I overlooking?” questions, of yourself and others instead of jumping to decisions borne of a “we’ve always done it this way” mentality.
  • Embrace being unclear (about people, situations, initiatives). The higher the stakes, the bigger the need for curiosity.
  • Place a premium on creativity. It’s a researched fact that adopting a curiosity mindset increases creativity, which has a strong, positive influence on productivity and financial success.

Since people prefer being certain, when we adopt a curiosity mindset, we empower ourselves and others to use our purposefully opened minds as a superpower.

Bridget Cooper is a public speaker, facilitator, executive coach, leadership consultant and author of seven books, including the recently published “Unflappable: How Smart People Quit Overthinking, Ditch the Drama, and Thrive at Work.”

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