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Curiosity or Judgment: Flipping the Switch Changes Our Ability to Think, Lead and Understand

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

The mind can only gather, compute, and produce thoughts in one of two ways--through curiosity or through judgment. The mind can't process in both ways at once. It has to pick a side. And it's not quite as easy as set it and forget it, like toggling between heat or cool on your thermostat. It's a manual override that must be decided on in every moment. Will I choose to be curious or judgmental? And how does choosing one over the other produce different results?

The thing is--just like the air conditioner is the opposite of the heater--curiosity is the opposite of judgment (most think the opposite of curiosity is certainty; but it is doubt that is the opposite of certainty). Curiosity and judgment each yield very different results when we think about ourselves, talk to our friends, try to lead a team, or work to understand our children.

Curiosity says, "I need more information."

Judgment says, "My assumptions are all the info I need."

Curiosity says, "I'm interested."

Judgment says, "I'm worried."

Curiosity says, "I'm open."

Judgment says, "I'm closed."

Curiosity is the hallmark of the way children's minds function, and judgment is the hallmark of ours. I lovingly refer to my older child as the Question Monster. Everything is a question. Every move I make, everything I say, anything she sees, it's an endless (I can't stress how endless) litany of questions. And for a long time the questions drove me bananas. I often wanted to punch a wall, or pull out my eyelashes, there were so many damn questions. The more she questioned, the more nervous I became.

It upset me to such a degree I finally realized there had to be something wrong with me, not her. I had to sit with my anxiety over her constant (I can't stress enough how constant) barrage of questions. When I sat with the discomfort for a while, I realized that her questions made me feel judged. When she asked, "What's for dinner?" I oddly felt judged for not knowing yet. Or as if my ability to feed her was being challenged. Or perhaps she didn't trust me to remember she needs to eat every night. When she asked, "Why are you on your computer right now?" I felt judged for not paying attention to her. When she asked, "Why are you wearing that?" I thought she was suggesting I didn't look nice. Essentially, the more my daughter questioned me (and I can't stress enough how much she questions me), the more I felt on the defense. This isn't a rational reaction to an 8-year-old, I realize, but it was my automatic response. My thermostat is constantly set to a balmy, cozy judgment.

When I finally realized she was coming at me from a place of curiosity, I began to see her questions differently. When I manually overrode my judgment mindset to one of curiosity, I began to see her questions weren't judging me and my choices; she was simply trying to understand them. She wasn't asking the questions because she thought she had the answers; she was asking because she didn't. She's never trying to make a point about things; she's simply trying to make sense of things.

Aren't we all?

And yet, think of all the conversations you have where judgment not only clouds the answers, it actually clouds the questions. I recently had a client call to say, "I need to talk to one of my newer employees who is doing a terrible job. She clearly doesn't care about her job, and I need to put her on a performance improvement plan. Can you help me prepare for that conversation?" I responded, "Sure, but it's going to require you to flip from judger brain to curious brain." She was quiet for a minute. "Okay, but how would being curious change how I approach her?" Here's how:

"The judgment has you declaring she's performing terribly. The judgment has you assuming her poor performance is because she doesn't care about her job. The judgment has already given you the solution--a performance improvement plan.

"The curiosity, however, would have you reflect on your definition of a 'good job.' The curiosity would have you wonder what she feels and thinks about herself and the role. The curiosity would be to question what she thinks the solution might be to this situation."

A few weeks later this leader called me back to say, "Okay, I wanted to tell you a few things I learned. I hadn't actually defined the role well enough for her to know my expectations. She cares very deeply about the job, but was feeling so overwhelmed by my lack of clarity that she was avoiding me. Together we decided to meet once a week to go over my expectations until we start speaking the same language and feel stronger in our dynamic." No conflict. No apologies. No performance improvement plan. All of that avoided by one simple conversation born out of curiosity.

Judgment makes up our mind before we know all the information.

Curiosity keeps us gathering information.

Judgment points blame--either to someone else or to ourselves.

Curiosity questions if anything requires blame.

Judgment quickly searches for the solution. Curiosity slowly examines the problem.

Judgment is focused.

Curiosity is comprehensive.

Judgment has us feeling.

Curiosity has us thinking.

Judgment seeks to respond.

Curiosity seeks to understand.

We tend to ask questions and respond to questions with judgment. And it stops our ability to understand and be understood.

Though I've worked through my feelings around the questions my daughter asks of me, I was recently called out on the questions I ask of her. She's a serious, reflective, even brooding person, and so she often looks and acts upset. When she would walk into a room and I saw her being serious (and on the verge of a question), I would say, "What's wrong?" It's a simple question from a judger mindset. One day she stopped and said, "Mom, nothing is wrong. Why do you always think something is wrong? Sometimes I'm just thinking." I had been coming at her with a question that assumed the answer ("What's wrong?" says, "I know something is wrong.") and there's no more judgmental question than that. Since that day, when I see her looking upset, I flip the switch and ask a question that comes from the deepest place of curiosity I have:

"What are you thinking?"

And I work to stay poised in curious anticipation of her response.


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