Of all the ‘how to’ questions my clients have posed this year, none have targeted the skill I most frequently recommend that people develop: being curious.

I am an evangelist for curiosity because businesses become moribund without it. Roget’s Thesaurus defines the absence of curiosity as boredom, ennui, taking no interest, a minding one’s own business. This mental quicksand is particularly hazardous to quality initiatives. If the dialog between senior management and quality professionals lacks the creative energy of curiosity, genuine collaboration will downshift to the politics of compromise.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, puts it well when he says that in spite of putting people on teams, processes, and joint ventures, the real barriers to collaboration and communication remain in people’s heads.

Why Aren’t People More Curious?

I think the reason so few people wonder how to be curious is that curiosity is seen as a product of a particular situation rather than something people do. In other words, you’ll become curious when there’s something to be curious about.

Yet, the human brain works in just the opposite manner. Rather than identify gaps in our knowledge for further inquiry, our brains fill in the blanks with untested assumptions. Tom doesn’t ask why his boss interrupted him several times during today’s staff meeting; he knows she doesn’t respect him. Mary doesn’t ask what to include in her progress update to the project team; she knows what everyone wants to hear. Our natural tendency is to form judgments first and ask questions later, if at all.

Certainly, assumptions are necessary. They are the conclusions we draw based on the data at hand. Our assumptions about reality enable us to function in the world on a day-to-day basis. We assume each day that our car will start, or that the buses will run on time, that our office is still in the same building, that our friends still like us, that we will have the same mental and physical capabilities we had yesterday. None of these is certain to be true, but making these assumptions allows us to navigate our lives without becoming paralyzed by unknown possibilities.

Assumptions become problematic when we forget that they are simply a shorthand way for us to maneuver through our day. When we don’t challenge our assumptions, new information falls into them like water into buckets, the water taking the shape of the bucket.

Unfreezing Assumptions

The good news is that there’s a simple way for you to boost your curiosity. Even better, using this technique can free you from limiting assumptions about colleagues or challenges that might be undermining your performance without you knowing it.

People tend to hold assumptions tightly, almost frozen in their mind. Assumptions begin to “melt” when they’re exposed to awareness. The thaw continues when the assumption (“The world is flat.”) is phrased as a question (“Is the world flat?”). The assumption is now a hypothesis to be tested and the mind is open to new information. This openness is essential for genuine collaboration.

How to Unfreeze Assumptions

Unfreezing assumptions involves three steps:

1. Recognize your assumptions

Become aware of assumptions through clues in your body language, words, and emotions. If your body language is tight and closed, or you discount data that doesn’t support what you believe, or you feel threatened, it’s likely that you’re holding an untested assumption to be true.

2. Record your assumptions

It may seem like a hassle to write your assumptions on a sheet of paper, but it makes a difference. A documented assumption is more likely to be tested than one held loosely in the mind because assumptions are more tangible in writing, and reading an assumption creates objective distance.

As a point of reference, I usually fill at least one page of a legal-sized notepad with assumptions when I ask a client to tell me what he or she knows about a situation or person. Once tested, the assumptions invariably range from accurate to incomplete to just plain wrong. By recording your own assumptions, you can initiate that inquiry yourself.

3. Make each assumption a question

Turning your assumptions into questions isn’t as simple as putting a question mark at the end of a sentence. You also must make a mental shift from belief to curiosity. In order to do that, you may have to ask yourself questions like: “Why do I think this?” “Could I be mistaken about this?” “Does recent experience support my belief?” “How can I add depth and richness to my understanding?”

Suggested Resources

Robert Hargrove, Mastering the Art of Creative Collaboration (McGraw-Hill, 1998)
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990)

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