On being ... "curious"

 By Ingrid Sapona 

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist I read regularly. Over the years the topics he has chosen to write about have become more people-focused. For example, one of his best columns was about a friend who suffered from depression. He wrote about how when his friend’s depression first emerged, he made the mistake of suggesting things he thought might help lift the depression. He eventually realized, however, that his job as a friend in that circumstance was simply to acknowledge how awful it must feel to suffer from depression and to assure his friend that he’d be there. Unfortunately, his friend ended up committing suicide. 

Brooks recently published a book titled: “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.” Given his years of journalism experience and the shift I’ve noticed in him, I thought he’d have some interesting insights on this topic. So, I got the audio book from the library and I listened to it on my daily walks. 

He starts by telling a number of funny stories about himself. The stories drive home the idea that growing up, Brooks was more cerebral than emotional. One anecdote sets the stage best, I think: when he was four, a pre-school teacher told his parents that he doesn’t play with other kids – he just observes them. Of course, though that might not be great behaviour for a four-year-old, it isn’t necessarily bad for a journalist. 

Over the years, Brooks came to realize that if he was more connected to his emotions, he’d experience more joy in life. So, he set out to becoming more emotional and – as he put it – “fully human”. As he was working on becoming more connected to others, he couldn’t help notice an epidemic of anger and meanness. He believes much of the anger is attributable to people feeling unseen or unheard and therefore insulted, which then causes them to lash out. 

Brooks believes treating people with the consideration everyone deserves isn’t just a matter of being more open hearted. He thinks there are some basic social skills that can be learned. Things like being a good listener; learning how to reveal vulnerability appropriately; learning how to offer criticism in a way that’s caring; learning how to sit with someone who is suffering; and so on. He wrote the book to walk us through the skills it takes to know another human being and to make them feel known, seen, and heard. 

I think he’s onto something in terms of teaching social skills that help people connect. But, I almost stopped listening to the book when Brooks advised approaching conversations with others by “being curious”. Curious? Oh… that word is like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Being curious” has become such a pop culture buzzword, it’s almost become meaningless. 

Don’t know what I mean? Here’s are a few examples: the instructor in a mindful meditation class I was in told us that if we notice our mind drifting to some thought, rather than feel like a meditation failure, we should just “be curious” about it and then we should re-focus our attention on our breath. And surely you’ve heard “being curious” invoked as a rationalization for trying something or as an excuse for doing something. 

Giving yourself permission to “be curious” comes up a lot in self-help books and programs. And, when it does, there’s often an unspoken implication that we’ve all repressed the curiosity that comes so naturally to children. But, don’t worry – the self-help expert is giving you permission to reconnect with your curiosity. Seriously, if you’ve not noticed how much talk there is about “being curious”, now that I’ve pointed it out, I’m sure you’ll see how common it is. 

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against curiosity. Heck, I’ve always felt I have a healthy curiosity and I indulge it routinely (as I suspect you do, too). For example, at a recent get together with some new friends, the conversation turned to memorable vacations. A woman from Zimbabwe regaled us with a story about coming across a pangolin while on a safari. As she spoke, I was curious about what a pangolin looks like so I Wikipediaed it on my phone. I shared the picture with others – as they too were curious about what it looked like. No one told me – or the others who wanted to see the picture – to be curious. We just were – and none of us needed anyone’s permission to satisfy our curiosity! 

Approaching people with curiosity, as Brooks suggests, doesn’t seem to me to be a great way of connecting with them. If someone approached me with curiosity, I’d be more likely to clam up than open up. Where’s the compassion in curiosity? Being curious doesn’t really call for a give-and-take, which is the hallmark of a good conversation. I think people are more likely to engage with you if you show interest in them and in what they have to say. 

Though I disagree with Brooks’ suggestion you should approach others with curiosity, I do think taking an interest in others in a way that makes them feel seen and heard is important. Furthermore, I agree with him that attention to others is a moral act that has the potential to make a profound change in ourselves and society. 

Brooks’ book is an interesting and timely read (or listen), as the holidays will surely present many opportunities to practice the important skills Brooks talks about. In fact, I’d say that doing so may be the best gift you can give to others.


© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


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