Communicating with Curiosity

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Anthony Pica
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Communicating with Curiosity

Communicating with Curiosity

Have you ever found yourself wanting to make better progress in a discussion? Would you like to get your point across more effectively? One way to do that is by communicating with curiosity. "Seek first to understand", as Stephen Covey would say.

Socrates was known for rigorously probing other people's thinking. His approach to teaching his students was to first assume a position of ignorance—as if he had little knowledge of the topic at hand—and then curiously ask questions to explore his students' ideas and help them clarify their thoughts.

I often use this "Socratic method" when coaching people, both in group settings and one-on-one conversations. Asking questions, rather than just making statements, is a good way to overcome communication issues commonly caused by ambiguity and preconceptions.

Here are generic examples of questions that can help make progress in a dialogue:

  • "Why do you think that?"
  • "How do you know?"
  • "What evidence do you have?"
  • "But what about...?"

One of my favorite business books is The Goal. Alex Rogo, the main character, relies on his new mentor, Jonah, for guidance on how to save his manufacturing plant in a matter of three months. Jonah leads Alex to solutions by asking questions.

The author writes the following in the introduction of the book:

"I sincerely believe that the only way we can learn is through our deductive process. Presenting us with final conclusions is not a way that we learn. At best it is a way that we are trained. That’s why I tried to deliver the message contained in the book in the Socratic way. Jonah, in spite of his knowledge of the solutions, provoked Alex to derive them by supplying the question marks instead of the exclamation marks. I believe that because of this method, you the reader will deduce the answers well before Alex Rogo succeeds in doing so."

Indeed, Socratic questioning helps people discover the things they already know intuitively but haven't yet come to their own conclusions due to layers of mental blockers or cognitive bias.

But, as words of caution, beware of asking too many questions or questions you already know the answers to, because it can make you seem patronizing or condescending, which can trigger defensiveness.

Practice the Socratic method on yourself, too. For example, when you're thinking about making a decision, continue asking yourself "...why..." until you get to your fundamental truth. It seems Socratic questioning is at the core of critical thinking.

Two quotes I like to keep top of mind:

"Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers."
— Pierre-Marc-Gaston de Lévis
"I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don't know the other side's argument better than they do."
— Charlie Munger

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