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The demise of the curious question?

A consultant I know recently asked me to help him come up with an ‘icebreaker’ for a workshop he was running. He’d previously attended one of my ‘Working Live’ improvisation sessions and remembered some of the exercises I’d run as being full of energy and insight and he wanted to learn how to run a short 5 minute warm-up for his delegates.  He was particularly interested in the ‘Yes, and’ game we’d played and asked me if I could talk him through what I’d done.

I talked him through the steps in the process and then explained that the whole point was to give people a lived experience of accepting and blocking and for them to notice the different feelings and responses that the exercise evoked. “That’s great” he said “but what’s the big reveal at the end?”

I looked puzzled so he elaborated “What is it that I tell them they have learnt?”  I came to realise he was asking me to let him into some sort of ‘magician’s secret’ – what was the pre-determined point of the exercise that the participants would suddenly realise at the end? What were the conclusions that he’d be leading them to?  I explained “There isn’t a big reveal. Whilst there are some typical responses from participants and a little informing theory, the point is for people to experience the difference between two opposing approaches of interacting with each other. Whatever they learn from this experience that is of value to them is the point of the exercise.” He looked at me expecting more and, realising there wasn’t a secret formula behind the exercise, asked me for a top tip. “Just be genuinely curious about what happens” I replied.

This conversation has stuck in mind over the last month as I’ve started to realise how unusual people find it in the corporate world when they encounter genuine curiosity. It’s almost as if the way in which we develop our leaders has stifled the habit of simply wondering ‘why?’ and allowing others to do the same.  I’ve noticed a number of similar experiences recently where it seems that the act of being genuinely curious has been perceived with the suspicion that there is a secret formula, a hidden intent or a ‘correct’ answer lurking behind the question.

I asked a question at a conference recently that the speaker found tricky to answer. Afterwards he came up and asked me why I’d asked it and what I’d been getting at. I explained to him that I was genuinely curious as to what his answer might be and that there wasn’t any pre-disposed value judgements hiding behind it. I was simply letting my curiosity guide my own learning.

After running an experiential exercise with a group last week I asked the delegates what they had noticed and then continued to ask “and what else?” to help elicit their broad range of experiences. After 4 or 5 ‘and what else’ somebody in the group asked me “What is it we’ve missed?” assuming that I only continued to inquire because they hadn’t yet said the answer I was looking for.  I explained that I was simply curious in hearing their insights, however few or many that there were.

I’m currently running a series of experiments as research for a book on creativity and people are surprised or become dismissive when I tell them that the sole purpose of each experiment is to simply ask the question “What would happen if…..?” as opposed to having any robust or planned scientific hypothesis that I want to prove or disprove.  As I explained to somebody recently “Because I don’t have any real idea where I want these experiments to go, wherever they end up going is wonderful!”

Whilst I do accept that, at a deep unconscious level, I will have some value-laden intent behind all of my curiosity, I am genuinely interested whether our corporate environments are places where we can be deeply curious without triggering a drama triangle, an air of suspicion or appearing dumb and incompetent.

These reflections have prompted me to ask some new curious questions about creativity in the workplace:

Why does the predominant corporate mindset seem to believe that there always has to be a hidden intent or an underlying right answer behind every question?

Why does it feel so risky to be genuinely curious? Does the risk of being perceived as mad, bad or wrong outweigh the possible learning?

Why isn’t ‘What would happen if…?’ a powerful enough rationale for trying something?

Can life and learning not be more like creating an abstract painting and less like a rubbing off a scratchcard?

How can we make it more OK to be more obvious with our curiosity in the workplace?

How might we better use our deep curiosity as a ‘radar’ for our own learning?

A colleague and friend of mine recently shared a wonderful quote from Albert Einstein with me that feels appropriate to end on.

I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.”

    1. Hi Jeanette,

      Thanks for the comment. Is a really interesting thought and I suspect that there is a large part of our educational experience that influences this. I’ve certainly come to realise over the last few years how much my schooling both stifled my creativity and knocked my confidence. I can relate to Ken Robinson when he says “Education stamps us with an impression of ourselves that is hard to remove. Many succeed only after they have recovered from their education”.

  1. johncremer says:

    Hello Steve.
    Great article – largely because it is in accord with my own thinking of course!
    It is my experience that the greatest obstacle to learning is our education system.
    The focus is on “teaching” i.e. teacher tells student what the teacher knows and student is rewarded for agreeing and retaining the information. This is rigid and reductive. Another option is to enable “learning” where the teacher supports the student’s innate desire to learn and explore their world. Quite rare in our culture and actually threatening to most teachers as they may find themselves in areas where they don’t “know the answer” which re – evokes their own educational trauma.

    Here is a great quote from Michel Thomas who pioneered rapid language learning – especially with those labelled as “unteachable”

    “We handicap and hobble and put a heavy lid on the immense innate learning potential of the human mind that is in everyone. Education has become a conspiracy between parents and governments to control children. Every child is institutionalised at the age of five or six and sentenced to at least ten years hard time until so-called graduation. Children serve time by law and I call it a conspiracy because parents consent to it and the government enforces it. So children become prison inmates – except unlike prison inmates they do not have a voice with which to protest, or advocates to protect their rights. Children don’t have anybody. They have to serve their time unconditionally.
    After such an experience many naturally feel that they have have enough of education and learning. They have no wish to continue. School is over and done with – learning is finished. From childhood on we are conditioned to associate learning with tension, effort, concentration,study.
    In essence learning equals pain.
    The educational experience has been a painful one and has capped the immense learning potential of each child. This is a tragedy.
    Conventional teaching, Michel argues, closes rather than opens the mind and cripples even the best students, blocking the subconscious because of the tension it creates. “Why not make use the full potential of the human mind, by combining the conscious and subconscious? And you can only tap into it if someone is in a relaxed and pleasant frame of mind. It is important to eliminate anxiety and tension. Then and only then is a person completely receptive to learning.
    People do not want to expose themselves to more pain, or face what they think are their own inadequacies. Yet these are the very people who become most excited when they see that they can absorb and progress quickly and easily”

  2. Thanks for the comment John. Very thought provoking as always. Interesting idea that teachers not knowing the answer re-evokes their own educational trauma – passing on the DNA of anxiety stifling curiosity! The point around balance is important too. Whilst I learnt a lot of intellectual stuff at school it was at the expense of a lot of felt/intuitive stuff so I like Michel’s idea of using the FULL potential of the human mind.

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