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The Magic of Curiosity to Transform Conflict

Updated: Nov 18, 2019



Curiosity is the second magic ingredient...


Last week on our podcast, The Beauty of Conflict, we spoke about how vulnerability can transform the dynamic of conflict.


Now we want to explain the magic of curiosity.


Curiosity is powerful. If someone in a conflict can tap into their curiosity, it makes a meaningful shift in what's going on. It allows space for conversation and dialogue, not

dueling monologues, as Alan Alda states.


In today’s episode we share some real life examples of how curiosity transformed conflict.

We’re taking examples from businesses we've worked with and our own life to show how curiosity during conflict transformed the situation, leading to better outcomes, creativity, and innovations.


We even share an exercise you can do to help grow your ability to focus on curiosity in your relationships.


Listen on Apple Podcast | Stitcher | Spotify

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The Beauty of Conflict for Couples


Full Transcript:


CrisMarie: Hello. Well, today we are talking, just the two of us, about the topic of curiosity. This is one of the two magic ingredients, vulnerability and curiosity. These, we find, can instantaneously change a dynamic. If I can access them, if somebody in the conflict can tap into their curiosity, it makes a powerful shift in what's going on.

Susan: Yes.

CrisMarie: So it might be helpful to first just even define what we mean by curiosity. Susan, do you want to take a stab at it talking about that?

Susan: Well, I'll start out by saying what it doesn't mean, okay?

CrisMarie: What it isn't.

Susan: Because so many times I've heard people say, "I don't want to be judgemental. I don't want to be a judgmental person." And I hear that and I, sort of, am like, "Oh, but that's one of your greatest gifts." I know that may sound a little odd, but our ability to be judgmental, to have an imagination, to create a story, to discern, subject matter experts, all of that. Their gift is in that ability to have judgment, to take that information and come up with an opinion.

The problem is, we tend to do that and then get fixed on it and we think we're right, so really judgments aren't the problem. It's the fixation and the righteousness of that, and that's where curiosity comes in. Because curiosity is the ingredient that loosens the grip between my expertise, opinion, imagination, or judgment and the natural juice of that from this righteous place that gets us trapped.

CrisMarie: I think, you know, I was thinking about, you couldn't see her hands but they were opening up, like it helps you open up, and I was thinking about people that are ... like, if I'm in a fight with you, I want to stay connected to my opinion. I want to be right. Where a subject matter expert, it's kind of an ego place where, "No, wait a minute. This is the right way." So there is a resistance, an inherent resistance for me wanting to be curious in those interactions. So it's really tough to access curiosity at times.

Susan: Oh, I really agree with you, and in some situations we actually imbue the subject matter expert with a desire to make them right. Like, I think of my experience in the medical models. Often, doctors are trained to have the right answer and patients want them to have the right answer. And so it's a whole tricky, slippery slope. But for me, this whole idea of curiosity, I don't want to go deep diving into the medical model, but I will say that really, the other place where curiosity really came up for me came from my own personal story around cancer. Because for me, cancer was like this, "It's going to kill me. I got to get rid of it. This is a bad thing. This is horrible."

CrisMarie: I think most people start with that.

Susan: Yeah, it's a big deal. And it was really eye opening for me to a have... well one, to began to realize that first cancer cells are my own cells. They're not some foreign body that came in. They're my own cells that have gone rogue so to speak, or sometimes I like to think of “gone creative.”

CrisMarie: They are creating.

Susan: They are creating a lot. And when I started to look at that as cancer much more from a place of curiosity and what it was presenting in my life and what I was being faced with, as opposed to it's just wrong and I've got to get rid of it, that was transformative for my health. It gave me a whole different way to be with that experience. And it wasn't about, “they created my cancer” or any sort of blame thing, but this richness of the curiosity of that, to have a relationship with it versus just “wrong, get rid of it. It's all bad.”

CrisMarie: I think about it. So you're talking about an internal process of cancer and I think of that as showing up in interpersonal dynamics. When I have somebody that is so different, and politically today, I mean we have very strong divides and I think Facebook kind of naturally creates these pockets, which is kind of internal cancer cells, like, well, okay, we're not gonna merge with the rest of the body here, we're just going to have our own conversation. And the idea of, "well, I'm just gonna stay away from those people because they believe that and I'm going to collect the people ..."And that's really natural. I want people around me that think the same way, because it's so painful to actually hold a space for somebody who has such a different opinion.

Susan: Yes. I mean, this shows up in business. It shows up in politics. It shows up in interpersonal couples, and relationships, and families. It's such a fundamental thing. And we tend as human beings to want to get into right/wrong simply because that gives us some form of certainty and all of us have some inherent fear of the unknown.

CrisMarie: Well, we all came into this world alone and helpless and somebody needed to take care of us and then we're going to die. And I think we try to pretend that's not going to happen. But that's a big uncertainty out there that I think we live with that anxiety about that. So yeah, so getting to certainty, like if I can know the right answer and know this is the way, I settle down. So being curious, it creates more uncertainty, because maybe I don't have all the answers.

Susan: Yes. And we've seen, the way that we've seen this show up in business, I mean we once were doing a leadership development program and we had been doing it across a large organization, and there were two key leaders that were in the program. And we introduce a model that we refer to as “check it out.” Which basically means that as we take in information, it goes through our personal filter, our unique experience, our-

CrisMarie: Significant emotional events, all the things that have made us human, that help us sort the world and make really, kind of, rules of what's good and what's bad.

Susan: Yeah. And when it comes through that filter, it drops into what we refer to as “our story.” And we use the word story intentionally to help people begin to loosen it up. This is not a known fact to everyone. It's not a universal truth, it may be your truth, but it's you telling yourself a story.

CrisMarie: And this could be my thoughts, my assumptions, my hunches, my hypothesis. All of those are stories that we are generating.

Susan: Yes. And we introduce this model in our leadership development program all the time, and we had done that with this particular group and there were ... and often we'll have people, we'll encourage them to go and practice this. And-

CrisMarie: Well we gave them a space to go practice it.

Susan: Yeah we did. We made the time, set it up. And it just so happened that these two people got together. We didn't know what was happening. We finished the time, I think it was a 15 minute block of time they had or something like that. And they came back and they were like transformed and they said, "Do you know, that was the most powerful thing. I was so resistant to doing it." Apparently these two people had worked together at a previous organization where they had-

CrisMarie: Five years ago.

Susan: Five years ago, where they had both left at different times, and they both thought the other person had undermined them, said horrible things about them. They had heard rumors about what had gone on, each of them different storylines. And because they never checked it out, believed them. They had been avoiding other and the only reason why they did this particular exercise was because they were in the room and they didn't pick anyone else I think, and they got put together. But they tried it and they checked out the stories and they found out, one, they found out they were each carrying the same story about each other and they found that really wasn't what they thought or what had happened from their perspective. Totally transformed their relationship. I mean, I admire them for the courage to do it, and I also saw the difference in them and their career going forward.

CrisMarie: It was powerful. And what can happen is people will go, "Well, but they probably were lying to each other.” It really was that...how do you actually, you're checking out your story, how do you actually make room for, "Well can I actually believe this person? Am I willing to open and consider that what they are saying right now fits for them versus what I believed five years ago?”

Susan: Well, you know, I think what you're talking about goes back to in a previous episode when we talked about this notion of vulnerability, am I willing to actually show up real and say what's true, or am I holding it back? And a lot of times I think when people don't believe it, it's because something about it is incongruent. And I think from what I understand from these two people, it wasn't like they were playing nice when they first started to talk to each other.

CrisMarie: At our training.

Susan: At our training. They were saying, "I really did not like you." So they were saying something that's quite vulnerable to say, "And I believe you had undermined my career." I mean that's what they reported. And that's pretty vulnerable and open. And then because there's that congruence, I think it's a little easier to say, "Well wait a minute." I might even say, "I don't know if I believe you right now," because it's such a big story.

CrisMarie: Right.

Susan: That would be another way to do it and quite vulnerable to admit that.

CrisMarie: Yeah.

Susan: So I think that that's where these two things come together. This willingness to be vulnerable in it, even to say, "I don't believe you right now. I'm struggling. I'm getting defensive. I don't ..." Whatever that looks like can then lead to more curiosity.

CrisMarie: Right.

Susan: More openness.

CrisMarie: I mean this came to a, we were doing an executive offsite over in China with a large telecommunications company and we had done- usually on our two day offsites, we focus on the healthy stuff. So we teach them some communication skills, help them develop some trust, clear up some differences. And then the next day we usually work on their strategy, which goes a lot better when they've done some of this healthy stuff that we talk about. And then they work on what we call “the smart side.”

So they were getting to their clarity and their strategy, and it was a very passionate discussion. And there was one woman who kept coming up, but she could not buy into this, the idea that they were promoting and it got very heated. I mean, literally, the team stood up and literally backed her into corner. And this is when we finally said, "Okay, time out. Do you remember what we taught you yesterday about some of this? Check out your stories, be vulnerable, curious."

And so, they just kind of looked at each other and we didn't have them move back to the table. But what happened is she finally sat down on a window sill up against one of the walls. One of the guys said, "Okay, I want to try to be curious. I'm not ..." And what he did first, he said, "You know, right in this moment, I'm not curious about you. I think you have a completely wrong idea. You're not understanding us. And if you would just understand us, you would get on board."

And by acknowledging that, it actually created a space for him then to open up and be curious. And he said, "So I want to understand," he still had kind of an aggressive tone. "I want to understand what you're saying." And she was reluctant to share. And then as he settled down, he said, "I'm just going to come sit next to you." So he sat down next door and he said, "Okay, help me understand how at all you can think your idea is relevant in this discussion, because it doesn't seem relevant to me."

And she actually started to, she was more willing and started to explain her idea, and then you saw the light bulb go off in his head and he reflected back what he heard and he goes, "Oh my gosh, I was looking at this so differently." And then he translated it for the rest of the team, and it totally changed the strategy that they came up with, because he was willing to slow down and think of this crazy idea that she said is actually relevant and open the space for it. And it shifted the whole outcome of the meeting. It was a really powerful display.

Susan: Yes. And you know, I think that was huge. And so many times when we're working with large corporations, and with businesses, and across functions, and things like that, sometimes one of the biggest challenges is to talk people down from the notion that if they confront something, if they say something, if they disagree with one of their colleagues of the same stature, they are throwing them under the bus. And so I think, the reason why I'm bringing that up is because we were just recently with a team where we were introducing them to this model. And I remember they were really struggling. Like that's throwing people under the bus.

CrisMarie: If they checked out their story.

Susan: Yes. Or if they were to say, "Hey, I don't know that I can put all the time and attention you need into this and so I'm struggling buying into it or accepting it." And they saw that as throwing somebody else under the bus, and we kept trying to tell them, "No, it's vulnerable on your part to actually speak up and say it," but especially if you're actually genuinely interested in hearing, have they really thought it through, because you're thinking they haven't, and that that would be where that curiosity comes into play. But so many times in business you're told don't challenge upward, or don't question things, and yet that really is what you're there for. But you have to be willing to, kind of, not get into a big power struggle about it or a right/wrong about it. But okay, I'm struggling.

CrisMarie: So I think what you're bringing up is this idea of, “okay, I need to, I want to check something out.” Like, "Okay, I'm thinking you didn't prepare for this meeting because what you're saying doesn't sound fully baked, but I want to check it out with you." And that idea of, with the energy, and it has to be an internal felt sense of are you actually open to hearing something different, or are you just trying to make them wrong?

And I think in highly political environments where everybody's trying to look good and make sure my idea is the best idea, there isn't really room for curiosity because everybody's trying to, somebody will say something and they'll put something on top of it and there's not a lot of real dialogue. Real dialogue is, "Hey, this is my idea or my opinion and I want to hear from you."

Susan: Yeah.

CrisMarie: Even if you have a completely different point of view or you disagree with what I just said. Like, "No, I did prepare. This is what I thought I had to do. So tell me what isn't making sense to you."

Susan: Yeah, I mean I think about one of the tools that we introduce in the a book that I find really has been helpful for me...

CrisMarie: This is The Beauty Of Conflict.

Susan: Yeah, The Beauty Of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage. Our first book, the business side of it. And we talk about this compass. And on the compass we have vulnerability, that's what we think of as “the me” axis. And in there it's like real is up on top. How real am I being? That means really saying what I think, feel and want. Not couching it, not watering it down, but really saying it. And that's everything from my opinion to I actually am feeling really hurt and defensive. That's on that-

CrisMarie: Or offended.

Susan: Or offended. That whole spectrum. And so real is at the top and hidden is at the bottom. And so that's it. I need to always be paying attention to where am I at in that. And then the other one is the curiosity, am I actually closed or am I open? And not making the key and working- this is what we call “the we” axis, the relational axis. And the key with that one is, I really need to be willing to not make closed=bad, open=good, but to actually be real with myself and notice. And so for me, I've been on boards, I've been in really hot, heated situations and sometimes I haven't done so good at using my compass, and I've actually all of a sudden been full bore in my reactivity and that's not a pretty scene.

CrisMarie: It's not.

Susan: But if I can step back and take a breath, and first of all, which one of these axis am I off in? What am I hiding? What aren't I saying? That's one thing I usually have to ask myself. And it's actually usually something about, I feel kind of defensive, or I've hurt myself with something you said. I don't really like to admit those sorts of things. I don't really mind revealing my opinion. So that's not usually where I'm lacking.

CrisMarie: Your feeling what's happening for you in the moment emotionally.

Susan: Yeah, that I may or may not have been as forthcoming with it. And then, I mean, I might say I'm angry, but I don't say, "Oh, I'm stabbing myself with that last comment." And so that's been helpful to me to really own up to. And then paying attention to, “am I really open?”

So when I ask that question, I'm asking, “am I willing to be influenced? Am I willing to listen with the intent to be influenced?” Which is the other critical piece of curiosity that we haven't even really mentioned.

CrisMarie: I know. Alan Alda has this great quote about dueling monologues, which is a lot of what we typically do, versus can you actually create a dialogue? And his phrase is, "Listening with the willingness to be influenced," and how powerful that is. Because then it's, when you have dueling monologues, which this often happens in business meetings. That's the thing I was talking about. My opinion, your opinion. You're not really-

Susan: Just so you know, it happens in couples a lot too.

CrisMarie: Oh gosh, it happens with us. But it doesn't create space for more to occur. And it's not until I'm actually engaged in what I'm saying, and I'm actually interested in you, that there's connections that are made that wouldn't be made with the dueling monologues. It's actually this dialogue that actually creates new solutions, new ideas. That is quite powerful.

Susan: It is. Yes. So I mean that-

CrisMarie: Ooh, can I ... something else. It's just this link to creativity, because even inside of our own brain, what happens where we get those hits of inspiration are actually when our brain is holding two distinct opposite ideas, not choosing one over the other, but when our brain is trying to hold them at the same time, that's when new neural pathways are created and new creative ideas emerge. So the same thing happens between two people. When I can hold my opinion as valid and I'm interested in yours and vice versa, then there's this space that's created where new solutions emerge. That wasn't my way or your way. It's very cool. I get excited about it.

Susan: You do.

CrisMarie: Well it's so much ... I mean, I think I've mentioned this in another episode, where that is what I experienced in the start of our relationship, where I kept thinking, "Oh we disagree, this is over." Versus you were like, "No, hang in. I want to hear." And that dynamic of making both opinions valid is such a different experience than I grew up with. If I was like, "Okay, it's Dad’s way, it's Dad's way and so it's my boss's way or it's the client's way," versus, "No, we both matter here."

Susan: Which brings us maybe to some last piece to kind of cover here, is because when there is this tension and conflict going on, that can happen around ideas, it can happen around subject matters, it can happen around opinions.

CrisMarie: Or chores.

Susan: And when it, though, has probably the most challenge is when it is triggering or tapping into someone's core values or beliefs. Now a lot of times that does show up in couples. It can also happen in the business world. It may not come up as readily, but it's often there. And when it comes to values, when something, even with the two of us, when we've come up against a value based thing, I think about-

CrisMarie: Money.

Susan: Money, yes.

CrisMarie: We don't know if that's what you're going to say. What were you going to say?

Susan: Well I was, because that is one where we have ... honestly when we first got together, I think you used to actually think of me is just stupid around money, which-

CrisMarie: Okay, when she would not be able to balance her checkbook, she would open yet another bank account. So yes, I had judgments about that once you had six bank accounts with different checks.

Susan: Okay. She's revealing me. But the thing for me was, money I do, I could never understand your perspective on like I want us to, even around our business choices sometimes or around our personal saving choices. You had such a-

CrisMarie: Rigid.

Susan: ... rigid position and I would be, like I'd be resistant to wanting to do it at all until I finally, we were in a Couples Alive program where we were working with the question that we often encouraged people to ask, which is why is this so important to you? And when I started to ask CrisMarie about this related to money, I really started to tap in. It really had nothing to do with money per se. It had to do with the value she has around a sense of stability and security.

CrisMarie: And safety.

Susan: And safety.

CrisMarie: Yeah.

Susan: It was really a safety issue. And when we'd had those discussion, it did not feel like a safety issue to me.

CrisMarie: Well and I really, because this has even become more clear the more self-reflective I've been, is that it's not safety like we have gobs of cash so we're safe. It actually ties to when I was a little kid and I felt really unsafe in my family environment, money was one thing I could control. And I was great at savings. My older sister borrowed money for me when I was 12 so I had, "Wow, I can have a sense of power or control," where I as a little one in this family system felt really scared and out of control.

Susan: And so for me, when I started to understand that aspect of what money meant, a very different way in which I listened and which I began to understand some of the things she was wanting and desiring, and even I could look at my own money story and see where, that money actually did nothing but cause more problems with the people I saw around me. So it did not equate to something that was in control, if I go way back.

And so very different, but what I could ... what I have grown, where we've learned to equate our values as I want the freedom that I can get from being able to have the financial intelligence that we need in our business and in our world. And so that I could recognize, "well wait a minute, there is a place for ..." My freedom thing comes into play where it's a safety thing for her. And we could actually start to have that conversation.

CrisMarie: And I don't think we would've gotten there had I not been as curious about my own, like why is this such a big deal for me and why am I getting so rigid and not open to you? So I became self curious and then your curiosity about me and mine about you. So it really is a, curiosity has this open like, "Hmm, what is going on? Can I actually consider something different?"

Susan: And really the fundamental piece, if you're going to have a really important dialogue and conversation, where there may be key differences, especially around key differences around values, you need to make the space that this is not about coming up with the decision. This is about opening up the space to really hear each other. And in couples that's crucial. On teams, that's equally important. And it doesn't mean it's going to have to last forever. But make the space to have that conversation before you start trying to solve it.

CrisMarie: Yes, too often people are having their weekly tactical meeting and then they get into a strategic topic and they were trying to drive it to a solution, but they... whoa, whoa, whoa. Schedule a different meeting where you have an hour, hour and a half where you can deep dive and really hear what is underneath for people, because that's how you're going to get the buy in, by the way, that's how you're going to get the best ideas to solve that problem. But too often we're trying to run fast, let's solve it this way. Or couples brushing your teeth, trying to figure out are we going to buy that house or not, whatever, you know, making big decisions without giving your couple, your business, your team, enough time to really dig underneath and get curious.

Susan: Yes. And again, we want to resolve it and fix it quickly, because we don't like living in that uncertainty. So the more that we can begin to learn to tolerate uncertainty and tolerate the fact that there's not just one truth that's going to save the planet, where this is an uncertain world, sometimes scary as hell world, and we have to learn to tolerate that uncertainty. That's really the key to being able to become curious and willing to hear another person for who they are.

CrisMarie: Yeah, and we talk about curiosity in our Beauty Of Conflict book, Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage. It's also in The Beauty Of Conflict For Couples and some tools, “check it out,” and why is it so important to you are really in both books, whether you're interested in the business world or your couple world.

Susan: Okay. All right. Well I think it's been a rich conversation today. Hopefully you've enjoyed it, and we'll try to give you some footnotes around how to get to that compass and also think how to get to the chapters on check it out.

CrisMarie: Okay. Take care.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn.

Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It!

Pre-order their new book The Beauty of Conflict for Couples: Igniting Passion, Intimacy, and Connection in Your Relationship.


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