Curiosity is one of the secret tricks of conflict management, hiding in plain sight.

How often, when someone says something that triggers us, do we ask them more about what they said? Not often. Usually, we are busy thinking up snappy comments to what we think we heard. Even if we ask ourselves what they meant, we often answer that they have some character fault or another: They’re just stupid, so we should ignore them. They’re arrogant for saying that. Or we won’t even listen because they are just too angry/resentful/emotional all the time.

Instead of becoming defensive or getting caught up in the drama of the conversation, we can try getting curious about what’s going on with them. For example, say we have a neighbor who makes snide comments about the number of dandelions in our yard. We could get defensive and talk about how we’re too busy at work to pull every little weed, or launch into a speech about how bad for the environment herbicides are. Those reactions would have predictable results: increased tensions.

Practicing being curious, we could ask them how they deal with dandelions in their yard and then listen to their answer. We might be surprised to learn of a quick, environmentally sound method we didn’t know about. More importantly, as we listen and ask more questions, we might learn more about our neighbor and what is important to them about keeping their yard dandelion-free. In the process of learning what they value, we build a bit more trust with them. Listening and learning does not commit us to having our yard look like theirs, even if we want it to. While we still may not see eye-to-eye, we increase the chance of accepting our differences. 

When we’re having a defensive reaction, it’s harder to access our curiosity. Like any skill we want to use more during conflictive situations, we have to practice when things are calm. An easy situation for practicing might be when a friend is expressing an opinion that is slightly different than ours. Because there is already trust and basic agreement, we’re going to be less likely to have a knee-jerk reaction and can therefore remember to ask them more about their opinion. The more we do that in calm situations, the more likely we are to remember to use the skill in more dramatic ones. And once we get in the habit of using it, curiosity can actually distract us a bit from our differences, so we can continue to respond more productively.

It can also be interesting for us to become curious about what’s going on in our own minds when we feel triggered. Exploring why are we having a reaction can help us to understand our own values and show us what we might need at the time. In our example, for instance, why do we care about our neighbor’s comments? Our annoyance at our neighbor’s focus on the state of our yard may indicate to us that we wish we were taking more time to work outside in the yard. Or our reaction may show us that we really want to move forward with our plan to take out all of our lawn and replace it with a low-water alternative where dandelions wouldn’t grow. Whatever we discover, we’ve learned something about ourselves that we can use to create a better quality of life.

Improving our intentional use of curiosity can help us deal more effectively with conflict and help us get along.