Curiosity is a feeling – I am sure you recognize it.  And it doesn’t always “kill the cat.”

If I can get curious when I otherwise would be judgmental or defensive it becomes a superpower. 

You say something that sits wrong with me, and instead of reacting from an evaluative stance: “what nonsense” – or a defensive stance: “that was not what happened !!” – I can respond with curiosity: “I wonder why you are saying this?” 

It is a superpower because it stops me from jumping to wrong conclusions or having assumptions that my story is the same as your story.  What might well be nonsense from my life experiences could be the only way forward if I were in your shoes.  Unless I am curious about what informs your opinions and actions, I could miss most of the picture.

Let us call this kind of curiosity related to another person’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and motivations for outer focused.  

In relationships, we have an interest in knowing the other party.  Our interest in each other’s stories is welcomed, even validating.  Our curiosity is in the service of the relationship.  I was talking with some friends about this the other night and used the words legitimate interest.  

Obviously, the words sparked the question: what is then illegitimate interest? 

The discussion took off in a dark direction with recalls of sociopaths; people who, with strong person skills learned of our dark secrets and used them against us for their own gain.  

I hope you have not met too many of those; yet, we have probably all regretted telling something to the wrong person. 

Sometimes, what you thought was said in confidence may be repeated through no ill intent or without any thought to what the “repeater” might gain from disclosing what was not their story to share.  That is called thoughtlessness.  We all occasionally spill something.  Sometimes we don’t even know if something is not supposed to be shared.

Some people use gossip as a currency, hoping to be found interesting and for bettering their social standing that way – without considering if the person whose story they tell could be hurt.  As entertaining as they may be, friends who with snarky comments captivate you with other friends’ personal stories are also “the wrong person” – just in case you were in doubt. 

And some people, the sociopaths, are fully aware of what they are doing when they drop your sensitive story where it can hurt you the most. 

Our experiences with “others telling what is not their story to share” can make us reluctant to be open and authentic.  We learn – often the hard way – which friends (or family members or colleagues) are trustworthy and who are not.  

Along the way, our friendly discussion the other evening touched on how we react if somebody asks follow-up questions that feel wrong. We had all met questions that didn’t seem as clearly founded in relationship building but we had a hard time putting a finger on why it felt off, so we wanted to dig into that a bit. And this is where it took us.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate what we thought could go wrong. 

Say I, as a cultural researcher, because of something you have said about your background suddenly switch mindset from talking with you as an individual to asking into your experience as a member of a cultural group.  Or, as a psychologist, you get into a therapeutic train of thoughts and ask the kind of questions you might pose to a client. Or use the tone of voice you would use with clients.

I might not have noticed that I switched mindset. I know that I am still hugely and honestly interested in what you have to say, and my intent could even be that I want to help you.  But suddenly, I am not with you in a relationship but looking at you as a specimen.  In an interview, Traci Ruble, the founder of Sidewalk Talk, talked about a relationship being “between equals.” Perhaps the parity disappears when one person becomes “a specimen”? And you feel the difference right away.  

We called this objectification. 

This doesn’t mean that it is always negative when somebody is interested in you “as a specimen” or as a representative of a group – as long as you both agree what is happening: that you are under the microscope or are interesting because of one of the many labels that could apply to you. 

This doesn’t mean, either, that it is always positive even if you don’t feel like a specimen.  Have you ever been networking and somebody asked a lot of questions but never volunteered anything about themselves? Did you afterwards feel a little queasy, wondering what that was about? (Granted, the person interrogating you might have no ill intent; they just learned that it is better to be interested than interesting but haven’t learned the fine balance of give and take yet.)

But back to our hypothetical discussion where we differed in opinion and I ask “I am curious why you would say that?”  Is it a good enough excuse for asking a question that I am curious about?  Can we be more open about where our questions come from when we ask them so we don’t objectify without realizing it?

Would it feel more honest if I had said “I am not sure that I agree with you, but please, tell me what makes you say that?” 

Well, curious is still much better than “What nonsense!” 

True curiosity is not just more or less skillfully to ask into what motivates your discussion partner.  You can also be curious about what motivates you. 

When you say “I am not sure that I agree with you, but please, tell me what makes you say that?”, you have not only disclosed a difference in opinion but also a willingness to hear arguments, life experiences, or thoughts that might make you change your own mind. 

Haven’t you?  

Do you feel threatened by other people’s diverging opinions because you don’t know why you disagree or can’t make the argument for your own opinion?  Do you feel defensive when somebody experienced something different from what you took away from an encounter?  Do you feel “less than” when people disagree with you?

No, you are not accountable to me for your answers, but aren’t you accountable to yourself?  Aren’t you curious about what goes on inside your own mind when a discussion makes you uncomfortable?

Let us call this kind of curiosity for inner focused.

You say something and it sits wrong with me, and instead of reacting from an evaluative stance: “what nonsense” – or a defensive stance: “that was not what happened !!” – I can react with curiosity: “Why am I feeling so strongly about this?”

  • Is it the person – who reminds me about my 2nd grade teacher who set me in the corner? I will never agree with anything coming from her…
  • Does the subject make me uncomfortable because I strongly disagree with my spouse about this so there is heavy emotional entanglement? To change my mind means he wins…
  • Does the subject make me uncomfortable because my friends strongly disagree so if I voice agreement with you, there is hell to pay if they find out? 
  • Do I have a vested interest in not seeing your point of view because it is threatening to my ego, position, income, or a power structure benefitting me? 
  • Am I hungry or tired?
  • Am I negative about the speaker’s aftershave?
  • Is it against one of my values, but as I don’t live by this value, I am ashamed and super sensitive about the issue?
  • Is it a proxy for a fight with my mother/father/sibling/child/boss/…?

If you have ever been to an optometrist, you may have been met with what looks like a Virtual Reality headset meant to test your peripheral vision. You are supposed to react when you see small dots of light.  

Our inner motivations is a bit like this light show: Some dots are in focus and you see them with clarity. Those in your blind spot you don’t see at all.  And a lot are slightly blurry, you sense them more than see them as they flash by in the periphery.  

There is something there. 

It is also hard to catch what it is at the edge of our consciousness. 

Strong emotions are often messages from “there” – the blurry area – and the more conflicted you feel, the more important it is that you look for what is going on inside. 

Look! But not just for your own peace of mind. Your personal “minefield” is made up of these blurry unresolved issues, and you risk harming potential relationships with innocent and wonderful people when you “blow up” just because they remind you of your 2nd grade teacher or use the same aftershave as your ex-boyfriend.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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    • Thank you for swing by here, Laura.
      I was reading Wendy Watson-Hallowell’s blog on disappointment and also here, questioning what we though we should get that caused disappointment when we got something else, showed curiosity to be a gift.

      I guess “self righteousness” comes under the magnifying glass when we can stay curious.

    • Thank you, Paula, for reading and engaging.

      I agree that we don’t need to have the answers; admitting that there can even be a question to ask is intellectual humility, recognizing that we don’t know everything.