Killing Conflict with Curiosity- Here’s why being curious can help

It is often said that curiosity killed the cat. In a way, the saying is right. Finding out the truth of a matter can be painful and disappointing but sometimes you need to experience that to realize what you are doing wrong and how to put it right.

Curiosity doesn’t have to be painful. Really, it is a desire to learn. This is exactly why it’s so powerful to be curious during conflict.

When you consider that many of our conflicts arise out of our  perception, most of us would benefit from understanding why we have those perceptions and why the other person may have their own.

Photo by Eliza Lensa on

Curiosity Starts With You

As with all of our conflicts, it is important to start being curious about your own behavior and perceptions. When you start taking notice of your emotional triggers and reactions to certain behaviours,  you realise that you may have some work to do on your own views and biases. Your upbringing and the views you were exposed to as a child or your negative experiences, all shape and influence your conflicts.

If you want to understand this more, think of a work conflict and consider your family dynamics and how they may be contributing to the tension. Certain people tend to remind us of how we were expected to behave in certain circumstances within our family and how we feel about that. The fascinating pod cast by Esther Perel, “How’s Work” illustrates this very well. For example, those of us who find it hard to communicate with male figures in authority, may have had strong, dominating father figures and you are unhappily used to being submissive towards this architype. If you were protective of female members in your family, you may replicate this tendency in the work place. The point is, these perceptions and needs generated in childhood don’t necessarily reflect the reality of our environment and if we want to prevent conflict before it gets going or to calm it down once it arises, this level of awareness will help.

I remember feeling patronized and irritated by a male colleague who would try to ‘protect’ me from a particularly aggressive male manager.  He would do this by speaking for me, advising me not to oppose this manager in meetings and if I did want to object to something,  he would tell me how to say it. It was so frustrating and when I spoke to him about how suffocated I felt, he realized I was not his mother and I didn’t need protecting from his father. I realized that I often mistake male protection for control and dominance which was wrong in this case because my colleague, at least in his mind, was protecting his mother, not me.

Ask The Right Questions

Asking yourself whether you could be wrong or whether you may have interpreted somebody’s actions correctly is a good exercise to get into the habit of.  You could even tell the other person what you have observed and ask for them to confirm whether your perception is correct.

As with all good conflict resolution skills, asking questions of the other person about their intentions needs to be accompanied with kindness and empathy as well as a willing openness to listen deeply to the other person. This, in itself, is so powerful. To be able to sit with the truth, even if it is uncomfortable, without blaming or defending yourself, is a super-power. These kinds of conversations are tough because they are revealing and call for us to expose our vulnerability by reaching out and setting aside our egos. They allow us to acknowledge the humanity of the other person which takes conflict out of escalation mode and brings it to a place where two people can just sit and talk without pretext or interference from the past.

The moral of the story? Curiosity didn’t kill the cat but it did force it to realise that maybe it has been wrong all of this time and that continuing to communicate in the same way will only serve to escalate conflict and if only the cat could just listen, maybe lessons could be learnt for the future and relationships could actually be improved.

As always, I’d love to know what you think! Please feel free to leave a comment.


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