Developing Empathic Curiosity

"The most important element in having a vital connection to other people

—to the people who matter most to us—is curiosity.”

~ Brian Grazer, A Curious Mind

Last week we explored how to become more curious in a general sense. There are many different types of curiosity, however. Ian Leslie classifies three types in his book Curious: diversive, epistemic, and empathic. This week we will explore six ways to increase Empathic Curiosity. But first, here is an explanation for these three types:

Diversive Curiosity, he says, is a response to novelty, a constant seeking of newness. It flits from one topic to another, not diving particularly deep into any one thing. “Diversive curiosity is essential to an exploring mind; it opens our eyes to the new and undiscovered, encouraging us to seek out new experiences and meet new people. But unless it’s allowed to deepen and mature, it can become a futile waste of energy and time, dragging us from one object of attention to another without reaping insight from any.”

Epistemic Curiosity occurs when we are challenged, entrained, and focused by our curiosity. Essentially, “epistemic curiosity represents the deepening of a simple seeking of newness into a directed attempt to build understanding. It’s what happens when diversive curiosity grows up.”

Empathic Curiosity is “when you genuinely try to put yourself in the shoes - and mind - of the person you’re talking to, to see things from their perspective.”

Historically, Ian Leslie argues that although we've always had all three of these forms of curiosity, epistemic and empathic curiosity flourished on wide scale with the invention of the Printing Press. "The major index of the rise in empathic curiosity was literature: fiction, drama, and poetry. ...In the 18th century, a whole new literary form was born: the novel took readers further inside the consciousness of others than any previous kind of story or art form....When readers picked up Pamela or David Copperfield, they were finding out something of what it felt like to be another person — to spend time inside the mind of someone from a different sex, age, culture, or class." (source)

Strengthening our empathic curiosity has many benefits. Given that humans are a social species that have spent much of our history in small tribes, and that our very survival depended on belonging to a group, there is a clear evolutionary advantage to anything that can help us foster deeper connection with each other. According to a number of articles from the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center that summarize recent studies, it appears that curiosity helps us connect better, strengthen our relationships, cope better with rejection, be less aggressive, strengthen empathy, be happier, and even helps us step outside of our comfort zone (source, source). Another article concludes, "very curious people are viewed by strangers and close friends as comfortable, animated, interesting, and fun." (source)

Empathic curiosity even increases our health and wellbeing. Dr. Jodi Halpern, who has spent years researching empathic curiosity in the doctor-patient relationship says, "Caregivers who can learn to sustain their genuine curiosity about and receptivity to patients' perspectives, even in the midst of emotionally charged interactions, not only reduce levels of anger and frustration for both parties, they can significantly improve decision-making on both ends and increase the effectiveness of treatment” (source).

Before going any further, I highly recommend you watching this powerful TEDx Talk by Theo E.J. Wilson on how his curiosity led him to go undercover and the insights he gained from this.

“Curiosity is the opposite of judgement. You can’t hate something if you’re curious about it.

And really, you can be curious about everything.” ~ Hank Green

So how does one cultivate empathic curiosity?

1. Ask Questions

“Asking questions opens up new doors, new opportunities, and new ideas. It helps you think, create, and discover.” ~ Farshad Asl

Whether you are going on a first date or have been married for 30 years, whether you are just meeting someone at a social gathering or meeting up with a dear old friend, asking questions can open up a world of understanding. As Brian Grazer says, "the quickest way to restore energy and excitement to your relationships is to bring some real curiosity back to them."

So take a close look at a person and start asking questions. You can approach the situation from a place of questions: how did this person come to be as they are? What suffering and hardships have they endured? What do they long for in their heart? What are their dreams, passions, interests, and desires? And the central question: what is it like to be them?

Then of course you could ask plenty of open-ended questions directly to them, not just questions that can be answered by yes or no, but questions that really start to engage them. Ask 'why' and encourage stories. That famous study on the 36 questions that will help you fall in love with anyone reminds us of the power of questions to help us see into another's life and open our hearts.

As Charles Eisenstein says, "The vast majority of ordinary people are not the cartoonish caricatures of human beings that political rhetoric has made them out to be. They have an experience of life, a history, a convergence of circumstances that has brought them to their opinions. Just like you." And you may be only a few questions away from starting to understand the human being behind the caricature.

This video is from Charles Eisenstein about the question: what is it like to be you?

2. Really Listen

"Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we do