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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 don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” ~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Once you start asking lots of questions, it is important to really listen to the answers. What is this person saying? What are they conveying with their words, their body language, their tone, the light behind their eyes? So often we are busy thinking up our next question or our next response or even mulling over a story that that person had just said and picking apart everything we disagree with, that we are unaware of what is being said in the present moment. So deeply listening is a powerful skill to cultivate as we strengthen our empathic curiosity.

I've participated in many workshops where we are divided out into partners and given an allotted amount of time, say 1 minute, where one person, Person A, speaks for the full minute and Person B simply listens without responding at all. In fact, Person B is often not even allowed to respond at the end of the time. This is a great exercise to fully be present with another and not jump in to get our thoughts heard.

3. Be Mindful

"Respond; don’t react. Listen; don’t talk. Think; don’t assume.” ~ Raji Lukkoor

One way to listen and receive another is to practice mindfulness. A regular meditation practice that helps us become aware of our endlessly chatty mind is a great way to illustrate just how incessant our thoughts are and how much they overlay our experiences of life. This practice alone, as well as having many other benefits, can do wonders for developing empathic curiosity.

There are a number of things to be mindful of in order to fully listen to someone. First, to truly listen requires that we are present. Try to see if you can quiet some of your incessant mind chatter and open to whatever this person in front of you is saying. We may disagree with them strongly, but really listening does not mean that we need to set aside our morals or values or anything we hold dear. It doesn't mean we won't still take action on what we believe to be right. It does, however, mean opening to the possibility that others see the world differently from us and perhaps we can learn from them and at the least, seek to understand them.

Another thing to be mindful of is our biases. Verna Myers, in her great TED Talk on the subject says, "biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are." The wikipedia page on cognitive biases is a fascinating read and it will give you a sense of just how much the mind likes to categorize and sort things, oftentimes to great detriment. One of the many biases to be mindful of in the case of listening to others, is confirmation bias, or "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses" (source).

We so often want to confirm what we already know to be true, to sort information based on our mental maps and models of how the universe works to us and put new information into neat tidy places within that model. When information comes in that doesn't fit our model, it can threaten our ideas of the universe, how things work, and even our very definition of self, and this can create intense feelings of discomfort, uncertainty, and even anxiety.

Thankfully, a number of fascinating studies highlighted in this article show how even brief moments of mindfulness can be effective at helping reduce our cognitive biases. So how can you bring more mindfulness into your life? What if we were even to bring curiosity to how our minds work so that through greater awareness we can learn to cultivate more freedom of choice instead of being held to unconscious patterns? As Verna Myers reminds us when addressing biases, it's not about perfection, it's about connection.

4. Expose Yourself to Different Worldviews

"Every story is informed by a worldview.” ~ Brian Godawa

As Ian Leslie argues, empathic curiosity skyrocketed during the time when the literary novel was invented. This ability to put oneself in another's story had never been available in this way before. And with the invention of movies, documentaries, the internet, blogs, podcasts, and live video streaming all over the planet, we have many many other ways of putting ourselves in another's shoes and seeing the world from another's eyes.

As technology is always evolving, allowing us to access new realms of understanding, it is interesting to contemplate how new emerging technologies can help us access greater levels of empathy, curiosity, and understanding.

While I was helping design a global museum exhibition on the Science of Happiness, our team had many enlightening conversations about how technology could help us illustrate the concepts we hoped to convey. We had started to explore partnerships with Augmented Reality devices with the hopes that people could put on a headset and go through the museum through the eyes of a number of different people: a short person, a tall person, a person in a wheel chair, etc. What would actually seeing through the eyes of another while walking around do for empathy, compassion, curiosity and expanding our hearts?

Even though our museum exhibition is currently on pause, there are many people that are exploring this concept with Virtual Reality. It will be fascinating to see where this can take us!

So how can you expose yourself to other ways of living, thinking, working, having relationships, creating art, and exploring the universe? Is it by reading more books, watching documentaries or movies about people's lives? Is it by traveling and making friends with people from around the world? Let your curiosity lead you to new horizons!

5. Take the Other to Lunch

Elizabeth Lesser has a TED Talk called "Take the Other to Lunch," in which she talks about her initiative to counteract the tendency to otherize: take anyone that you consider the "other" out to lunch and have a conversation with them, to really try to get to know them. This could be a family member with different political views, a person from a different religion, background, age group, or anyone you consider to be the 'other.'

Arlie Russell Hochschild has done this for years. In her talk called "Scaling the Empathy Wall: Listening with Curiosity and Interest," Arlie told many stories from an exploration that had captured her curiosity for many years. A number of years ago, she decided that she wanted to understand why America was becoming more and more divided. Having lived in Berkeley, CA, one of the most liberal cities, she decided that she wanted to go to a completely opposite place, somewhere in the Deep South. She went with a curiosity to understand, to have conversations, meet people and expose herself to the other side of the political divide, to really see if she could understand what was happening in America.

She ended up spending over 5 years taking trips all over the "fly over" states and wrote a book on her experience called Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning in the American Right. Throughout these years, following her curiosity, she explained that she had to take off her moral and political alarm system and cross what she called her empathy wall. This didn't mean that she lost her political beliefs, but it meant that she was willing to follow her curiosity about the person in front of her and connect so that she could begin to see how this person saw the world.

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