Leaders Are…Curious

“What will I learn?”

So we talked about trust. It’s the basis of our relationships as leaders. Once we have established or re-established trust with our team, things get interesting.

I take note of a theme when it surfaces three or more times. And curiosity is a theme that has been on my radar for months. I am curious about curiosity.

Everyone has heard the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat.” A great leader and coach I know, Eric Johnson, recently posted an article on LinkedIn about this infamous phrase. It certainly speaks to the positive effects of being curious.

Think about it, as children, we are curious. We ask a lot of questions, “why this?” and “why that?” Then, as adults we stop asking, and start telling. We want to know all the answers as leaders, and that just is not possible.

A few weeks ago, I was leading a group coaching session about learning. In coaching, the format is loose. The conversation goes where it needs to go. We had a topic of learning, and posed the broad question “how do you learn?” We had a number of topics prepared if and when the conversation went there – learning styles, confidence, etc. – and the conversation went somewhere else entirely. The resounding answer from the team was curiosity. The conversation evolved into best practices around learning through curiosity. Some mentioned they asked questions, others mentioned they took time to reflect. We learn about ourselves and others through curiosity.

Recently, I was facilitating a leadership development workshop, and a leader was having trouble coaching an employee from a different culture. We talked about the power of open-end questions, and how to demonstrate vulnerability and trust. The conversation then landed on curiosity. I shared a story of how leaders prepare for discussions with an attitude of “what will I learn?” It promotes curiosity. Moments passed, and the leader internalized the discussion, and shares, “I will be curious to learn from my team.” That was his affirmation. And, he’s motivating and engaging his team more as result. His affirmation assumes goodwill of those on his team, and puts himself in a position to actively listen and ask vs. tell.

From these experiences, a few themes emerge. First, assume goodwill, ask the powerful open-ended “what” and “how” questions, and take the time to reflect on what you learned.

Assume goodwill

Quite possibly, one of my favorite coaching phrases. Before we engage in a discussion with other leaders, peers, or our employees, we have to remind ourselves to assume goodwill. Often, when we do not understand the other person or team, we fill in the blanks with all sorts of assumptions – they just don’t like my idea, they are trying to be difficult, they have a problem – trust me – I have heard it all. It’s usually not true. People do things with a purpose. And, usually it is to achieve a goal or to accomplish something. They rarely do things just to sabotage you. Instead of filling in the blanks, go into the discussion with a positive mindset. Remind yourself that they have good intentions, and you can be the one to discover them through good questions and listening.

Ask the powerful open-ended “what” and “how” questions

Open-ended questions yield more information than close-ended questions ever will. The “do,” “could,” “should,” “would,” or “can” question starters yield “yes,” “no,” or simple, short answers. Not all that helpful, especially for a curious leader. The best questions are ones we do not know the answers to. Now, that’s being curious. I often share in client sessions, “I am curious…I honestly do not know the answer to this…” It demonstrates vulnerability and curiosity. As a rule of thumb, keep it open-ended, and start as many questions with “what” or “how.” And, once you ask, resist the urge to think of the next question. Listen to what was said, playback what you heard, and ask the question that best builds of off what was just said. The answers will surprise you. You will learn more than you did in years asking close-ended questions.

Take time to reflect on what you learned

This is pivotal. I often find that when we ask the great open-ended, crisp, thoughtful questions, I see a look of surprise on the person’s face. People are not used to being asked these types of questions. They need some time to digest and think about it. Give them the space to self-discover. Wait several seconds, pause, and if their facial expression still signals bewilderment, only then, rephrase. Resist the urge to restate the question or share your thoughts. Let the question hang out there. It may feel uncomfortable for the 7-10 seconds needed for reflection. When we reflect, we have truly learned. As leaders, it’s our job to assume goodwill, ask powerful questions, and give people the space to reflect and learn.

When we reflect on what we learned, we internalize it, and take it with us to the next discussion or the next leadership role. It helps secure buy-in, gains respect, and people will follow you by choice. Leaders that are curious see better business results.

How will you lead with curiosity?