CURIOUS. It’s my pick for the 2024 Word of the Year. Curious. It’s an important relational skill we need to help us deepen our relationships with others.
Today’s episode is about what happens when we’re not curious about people, and what we can do about it to strengthen our relational curiosity muscles that will enrich our relationships.
But before we get into today’s episode, here’s what this podcast is all about.
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Missed opportunities when we’re not curious about people
I’m just about finished reading David Brooks’ latest book, How to Know a Person – The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. He’s a columnist for The New York Times and The Atlantic, and also a commentator you see every now on then on the PBS NewsHour.
I’m really enjoying his book and gave several copies of it to family members this past Christmas. At some point down the road I’ll do a review of the whole book, but for now, I’ll mention one paragraph that jumped out at me. The author tells the story of what happened to him at a dinner party when he was engaged in conversation with some interesting people.
Brooks mentioned conversations like this come naturally to him because his job as a journalist involves interviewing people, asking them questions, and otherwise drawing them out. After the party on the way home, he was reflecting on the conversations he had. And while they were certainly fascinating, they left him feeling empty.
He commented that here he was asking all kinds of questions of these interesting people, but no one was curious about anything in his life. No one asked him any questions at all. Not one. Nada. Zilch.
He didn’t mention it in this context, but Brooks as a columnist for two world-class publications, the author of several best-selling books, and a TV commentator – has lived a fascinating life himself. He’s traveled the world in connection with his job and has interviewed several US presidents and rulers of other countries. Yet no one was curious to ask him any questions.
How sad for Brooks, and even sadder for the people he engaged with at the party. They missed out.
“I’m curious about them, but they’re not with me”
Shortly after I read this section in Brooks’ book, one of my grandsons shared a similar story. A few months ago he started his first job out of college in a position he really loves. Plus, he is enjoying getting to know the people he works with. He is much younger than any of his colleagues, but they have taken him under their wings. Two women in particular go walking together on their lunch hour and they invited my grandson to join them. He describes his relationship with these ladies like this:
“I don’t think they realize how much younger I am than them [he’s 21]. They’re probably in their late 30s or early 40s and have been doing the same job I’m doing for a dozen years or so. They’re both moms with young kids in school. And they tell me about all the drama that goes on in their families with their kids. They’re fun people and I enjoy the time we walk together.
“But they don’t know one thing about me. They never ask me anything about my life.”
My grandson is a genuinely curious person. He’s always asking me questions about what’s going on in my life, and I can easily picture him asking his colleagues about theirs. He’s quite an engaging person so I can see why they invited him on their walks. These are good people he works with, but they’re missing out on learning how a person so different from themselves experiences the world.
“I’ve even killed people”
Then there’s my friend Dick at our church.
We’re a small group, about 25 of us. As part of our Sunday morning service, after the sermon we discuss what the preacher talked about. The discussions are often lively and quite interesting as people share their experiences as they relate to the sermon.
One Sunday not too long ago, the post-sermon discussion centered on the grace of God. Our little congregation has varying levels of understanding about this topic, based on what people experienced in other churches they’ve attended in the past.
Near the end of this particular discussion, my friend Dick chimed in. He’s in frail health, walks with a cane, and has breathing and balance difficulties. He comes to church with a caregiver who looks after him. When he arrives a couple of the women in our group always give him a big hug. His smile lights up the room when they do. Anyway, in a moment of vulnerability here’s what Dick said in our discussion:
“I’m 94 years old and all the things people have just shared are things I’ve been through myself, and more. But no one ever asks me about them. I mean, I’ve even killed people.”
It was a sad moment. A sad moment for our church because Dick has wisdom and experience to share if only people were curious enough to ask. Just saying this reminds me I need to act on my curiosity and engage with Dick more. I’m certainly interested in his perspective on the spiritual issues we talk about on Sunday morning, but I’m also curious about his personal life. He grew up during the Depression of the 1930s and I wonder what that was like for him. Oh, and then there’s that small matter of his comment, “I’ve even killed people.”
A different kind of law professor
I’ll leave you with one last story about being curious. It’s a positive one about
another grandson of mine. Our family was together on Christmas Day and we were catching up on each other’s lives. My grandson George had just completed his first semester of law school and we were asking him how it went. He talked about each of his courses and the professors who taught them. One of his professors in particular impressed me. George explained him like this:
“He memorized every one of our names, and there were 75 of us in the class. He taught two other classes and he did the same thing for those, too.
“Then he had each of us come to his office individually over the course of the semester for a short meeting. He said he just wanted to get to know us better. He asked us about our personal lives, our interests, things like that.
“And we got to ask him questions, too. I asked him how he got interested in law in the first place. Then I found out he had a couple of young children, and he told me about his wife, her love of plants, and that he was a big Green Bay Packers fan. No other professor does this. He’s ranked #2 of all the law school professors on that student-rated website.”
I’m really happy George has someone like this in his life, and I hope he gets this same professor again for another class. Not just because he was curious enough to find out more about George as a person, but also because he modeled for him what a relationally intelligent person does. They are curious about the lives of people they interact with.
But if I’m curious and ask people questions won’t they think I’m being nosy?
I’ll let David Brooks answer this question from his book I mentioned earlier, How to Know a Person. In his chapter entitled “The Right Questions” he writes,
“While doing research for this book, I interviewed many people – seminar leaders, conversation facilitators, psychologists and focus group moderators, biographers and journalists – whose job is to ask people about their lives. I asked these experts how often somebody looks back at them and says,
‘None of your d- – – business.’ Every expert I consulted had basically the same answer: ‘Almost never.’”
The author goes on to say, “A 2012 study by Harvard neuroscientists found that people often took more pleasure from sharing information about themselves than from receiving money.” Let that thought sink in for a moment. People often took more pleasure from sharing information about themselves than from receiving money.
Brooks concludes with “Over the course of my career as a journalist I, too, have found that if you respectfully ask people about themselves, they will answer with candor that takes your breath away.
“Studs Terkel was a journalist who collected oral histories over his long career in Chicago. He’d ask people big questions and then sit back and let their answers unfold. ‘Listen, listen, listen, listen, and if you do, people will talk,’ he once observed. ‘They always talk. Why? Because no one has ever listened to them before in all their lives. Perhaps they’ve not ever listened to themselves.’
“Each person is a mystery. And when you are surrounded by mysteries, as the saying goes, it’s best to live life in the form of a question.”
What a beautiful way of describing such a profound observation about the human condition. It takes my breath away.
So what about you?
How curious are you about the people in your life, and do you act on that curiosity? For me, I know now that I need to act on my curiosity about Dick, my 94-year-old-friend from church. I’ve got to find out where his “I’ve killed people” comment comes from. Not just for my benefit, but for his. There’s a story locked up within him somewhere that needs to get out to see the light of day.
Imagine what the world would be like if we were all a little more curious about each other. I’m convinced we’d all live deeper and richer lives.
So there you have it for the word of the year for 2024. Curious.
I’ll be coming back to this word and relational skill in future episodes this year. For now, though, at the bottom of the show notes I’ve listed links to past episodes that touch up the topic of curiosity that you might want to check out.
In closing, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about today’s episode. I hope your thinking was stimulated by today’s show, to become more curious about the people around you, and then to act on that curiosity.
For when you do, it will help you experience the joy of relationships God desires for you. Because after all, You Were Made for This.
Well, that’s it for today. If there’s someone in your life you think might like to hear what you just heard, please forward this episode on to them. Scroll down to the bottom of the show notes and click on one of the options in the yellow “Share This” bar.
And don’t forget to spread a little relational sunshine around the people you meet this week. Spark some joy for them. And I’ll see you again next time. Goodbye for now.
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