How Curious Are You?

Projects can easily get derailed when the listener assumes they know what the speaker is saying and the speaker assumes the listener fully understands.


As a simple example, someone recently asked me to add her as an Admin to my Toastmasters club’s Facebook page so I did and told her she needed to accept the invitation. Ten days later she said she was asking someone else to add her as a Admin. Obviously, she needed training. If instead I had said “I just added you as an Admin. You need to accept that role. Do you know how to do that?” it probably would have saved a lot of frustration all around.

When we are under stress or rushing, it's easy to assume we’ve communicated effectively. It can seem inefficient to slow down in order to ensure we understand and are understood, However, in the long run, taking a little extra time upfront to make sure we’re heading in the right direction can help avoid a lot of rework.

In his book Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, Nicholas Epley sights a study designed to measure how well romantic partners could predict each other’s thoughts. Romantic couples, some of whom had been dating for 6 years, were asked a series of questions to assess how well they could predict their partner’s thoughts and feelings. (As a baseline, people on average have a 20% accuracy rate at guessing what strangers are thinking and feeling.) Partners believed their predictions would be right ~ 80% of the time, when they were only correct ~30% to 44% of the time depending on the topic. The length of time they had been dating increased their belief in their prediction more than their accuracy!

Imagine how much worse our predictions are with co-workers.

What can be done? Imagine you are visiting a foreign country that has completely different customs and rituals. How would you interact with the locals? What assumptions would you hold onto? How would you verify your understanding? While it may seem extreme, treating anyone you interact with as if they were from a foreign country goes a long way towards improving communication.

From that perspective, you’ll naturally want to understand the hows and whys of your teammates choices and concerns. You’ll dig deeper to make sure you understand instead of taking things at face value. Also, you’ll want to make sure they understand your language, and what you’re saying and asking. Instead of assuming they know how things are, you’ll explain your reasoning and check their understanding.

This may seem time consuming and unnecessary. As things become routine, that may be, but if your team is launching new products or procedures, failing to do this can have major repercussions.


For example, imagine you’ve never worked in IT and the IT department is providing website support for your project. It may be obvious to you that the website could be updated in real time as needed. If your project is one of only a few IT is working on that may be so, but have you checked? Do you know what other responsibilities they are juggling? Do you know what hoops they need to jump through to get changes approved and what testing is needed to make sure the changes work? Does lead time vary by the type of change? What’s possible if there’s an “emergency” situation? How much of your project plan is dependent upon unverified assumptions?

Lack of trust also hurts communication. What level of trust has your team developed with you and among themselves? Do teammates feel comfortable sharing their concerns? Do they feel there are being heard?

It can be easy to discount worriers who seem to cry wolf. Have you had a private conversation with that person to better understand their concerns? What do they see that others don’t? What looks different from their perspective? What do they need? What concerns are valid, and where can you put them at ease? What communication procedures would enable them to speak their mind without derailing meetings?

Deep curiosity helps people feel heard and respected which created trust. Trust creates support when changes are needed or the unexpected arises.

Deep curiosity helps to uncover potential problems before they balloon and require many hours to correct.

Most importantly, curiosity creates learning and expands your understanding and knowledge. I’m often surprised at how unrelated experiences sharpen my skills. Who would think that a simple request from a fellow Toastmaster would inspire a blog post and being intentional about applying my work skills to my hobbies? How and where would more curiosity help you grow?

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