Monthly Archives: September 2016

Day 030 – Different kinds of curiosity

Today marks one month in on this project and I would like to take a step back and consider what has come out of thinking and writing about–and trying to practice–curiosity for 30 days. In fact, a friend of mine recently asked if this blog was helping me be more curious. A useful question. What it clearly is doing is focusing my attention on my curiosity practice, and this does have some positive effects:

  • It makes curiosity something of a real priority (as opposed to an on-paper priority).
  • It starts conversations about curiosity with other people and has given me access to ideas and exercises I otherwise wouldn’t have had.
  • It has already provided some clarity about what curiosity is for me, what it isn’t, what its benefits can be.
  • I haven’t experienced anything yet that contradicts my hypothesis. I believe that if I were to practice curiosity consistently it would provide me with the benefits I expect. And there we have what my blog has not yet really done for me. With a few exceptions, it has not really helped me practice curiosity consistently.

One thing to come out of it so far is a growing sense of different kinds of curiosity. My working definition is pretty vague, and I see at least the following four kinds of curiosity that fulfill my definition.

(1) Existential curiosity. We could almost call this one “river curiosity” after the quotation that was part of the inspiration for this blog. It is the one where we let go of our need to direct our lives and await with curiosity what wonderful things life offers us. A very difficult kind of curiosity to practice with a distinct potential for disadvantages in a world that expects us to be proactive and show initiative (“God helps those who help themselves”).

(2) Mindful curiosity. It involves paying attention without judgment, simply experiencing openly without any planned outcome, as shown in the Five Senses and Madame Karitska exercises. This one is perhaps the easiest to learn and practice consciously.

(3) Desire-to-learn curiosity. This is about getting to know something better. I suspect all of us have experienced this whether we were interested in horses, snakes, Nietzsche, stamps or comic books. It didn’t always help us in school, but it enriches our lives.

(4) Interpersonal curiosity. This is fundamental to the Ladder of Inference, Inquiry, and any efforts to understand ourselves and other people more deeply. In a world where polarization is an ever greater threat, this is possibly the most important kind.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with this. Structuring my thinking this way does help me choose more intentionally what I work on. I may never achieve a consistent practice of existential curiosity. Maybe that is only for people with a really strong faith. I may actually need to reign in my desire-to-learn curiosity, as it can sidetrack me in a big way. Perhaps I’ll spend most of my time on mindful curiosity and interpersonal curiosity.

Eleven months still to figure it out. 🙂


Day 029 – Travel and curiosity

Today I am off on a mini road trip—to a small New England city I have never been to and then on to a small New England city I lived in for four years when I was at college. A chance to practice two different kinds of curiosity—curiosity about something new and curiosity about how something known is now different.

More on this soon.

Day 028 – Drawing class 02

Is the  drawing class really helping me practice curiosity,  as I wanted it to? Yes,  in two ways. First of all, I usually know very little about what we  will be doing–today I  knew we would be working on organic,  and therefore asymmetrical,  shapes (which didn’t tell me much)–and so, perforce go in in a state of curiosity. Secondly, the  drawing itself–trying to  find out,  for example,  what shapes “live” in objects–requires me to look closely with curiosity and really notice. In fact, our teacher was demonstrating something this evening and suddenly started erasing some lines  he had drawn. “No autopilot,” he said. “If I had really looked at that I would have seen it is straight there,  not rounded.” And as he said later,  looking–thank heavens–at someone else’s drawing, “You got a couple of lines wrong and then the whole thing looks funny.”

Onward. 🙂

Day 026 – Sample of an Inquiry journal

Some basic information to help you on your way:

“Inquiry means listening with the intention of genuinely understanding the thoughts and feelings of the speaker.” (Ancona, et al., Harvard Business Review, 2007)

For our purposes, Inquiry always means trying to understand how the other person sees the situation. It is not about what is objectively right. For that reason, most questions include phrases like “In your opinion ….”

Inquiry is most useful for those times when you get into a discussion with someone you disagree with and the discussion is not making any progress. I started keeping an Inquiry journal when I realized that all the knowledge I had about this way of communicating did not help me when I got into what I call “wrangles,” where I still found myself simply presenting and advocating my point of view and trying to show the other person how their view didn’t make any sense. (To picture this, imagine the struggles between cowhands and the cattle they are lassoing. I would sit on my high horse and try to get my students, for example, to accept what I was telling them. They were wriggling and trying to get away. We got nowhere.)

There are two related ways of using the Ladder of Inference to talk more productively about opposing viewpoints. They are part of a communication technique built on the Ladder of Inference and developed by Diana McLain Smith. The first is Advocacy, where we make clear the steps in our own inference processes. The second is Inquiry, the focus of the exercise below, where we seek to understand more completely the other person’s worldview and why they hold that view.

Inquiry journal – a sample entry

Imagine you are speaking with someone and suddenly realize you two disagree on a point. Your find yourself getting heated and clinging ever more dearly to your own position. The person you’re speaking with does the same. Because of this, the conversation is going nowhere. It has become a ping pong game rather than, perhaps, a relay race. How can you get moving again, grow to understand why the other person holds the view he or she does, build the relationship, learn more, and all kinds of other good things? Try this way of probing with questions based on the Ladder of Inference:

Steps on the Ladder of Inference Corresponding questions or points in our system of Inquiry
(1) The speaker says this. You belong to the “slide into the grave saying ‘what a trip’” school of thought “Our bodies are temples. We must take care of them.”
(5) Action ·         What do we need to do to live up to that?

·         What do we need to avoid?

(4) Conclusion (often a “should”) ·         How should we relate to our bodies?

·         What is truly important in life?

(3) Added meanings ·         When you see people taking care of their bodies how do you feel?

·         How do you feel when you see people not taking care of their bodies?

·         What do you associate with people who abuse their bodies?

(2) Data selection ·         What does “take care of it” mean to you?

·         What examples are you thinking of?

P O O L   O F   D A T A

Once again, for quick reference:

The Pool of Data is all the objective evidence or facts available on the topic. Everyone has access to all of this.

The Data Selection step asks about what examples the speaker is drawing on and / or what experiences they have had in connection with the topic.

The Added Meanings step is trying to find out how the person feels about or reacts to the examples or experiences they have had.

The Conclusion step is often a “should”. It tries to understand how the speaker thinks the world should be. It is often a very general point and can be somewhat philosophical (as you can see above).

The Action step is finding out how the speaker thinks the point made in the Conclusion step should be lived. What behaviors, what actions best fit with or express the Conclusion.

Background information

Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge. “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” Harvard Business Review, February 2007

Argyris, Chris. Overcoming Organizational Defenses. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.; 1990

Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, and Smith. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1994.

Day 025 – A story about what Inquiry can do

It may be helpful to share a story of what Inquiry can (and is designed to) do before I get into the nitty-gritty of the how-to.

I have been known to have students in courses practice live Inquiry with a partner on a subject they disagree on. In one case, I was teaching a course online where I was in one place and all the students were together in another. After covering the basics of Inquiry I gave the students an assignment:

  1. Work with someone (e.g., a classmate) you don’t know very well.
  2. Find a topic you disagree on quite strongly and have fairly strong opinions on how to manage, e.g., smoking restrictions, vegetarianism, using labor in low-wage countries … You may already have had a conversation with this person on this topic and realized you don’t see eye-to-eye.
  3. Start a discussion about the topic you have chosen. Make it the objective of the conversation to practice Inquiry, remaining curious about what the other person has to say.
  4. When you are done write one page (about 250 words) answering the following questions (a) How did it go? To what extent did you feel able to practice the phrases and attitude at the center of Inquiry? (b) How did you feel about the outcome of the conversation? In what ways was it different from other conversations where you disagreed with someone? (c) What can you apply from this exercise to future conversations?

To my delight, two students not only did the assignment thoroughly but took it in the spirit in which it was assigned—as a chance to really explore someone else’s views. These two students had opposing views on abortion. They sat down and practiced Inquiry, and its counterpart Advocacy (also based on the Ladder of Inference), for over an hour on this incredibly emotional and usually divisive topic. At the end they reported that although they hadn’t changed their views they had much greater understanding of the complexity of the issue, why the other person saw the issue the way he or she did, and had acquired greater respect of people who held the opposing view.

Don’t you think that if we would do this more often, we would all get along better together and maybe even find solutions that are more acceptable for both parties and greater acceptance for solutions?

Day 024 – The Ladder of Inference

A quick (partly personal) history: The Ladder of Inference was developed by Chris Argyris and presented in his book Overcoming Organizational Defenses in 1990. It has been adapted and adopted for various purposes by many different people and groups. I was introduced to it in a dialogue workshop close to 15 years ago.

The reason the Ladder exists: What Argyris wanted to do was make visible the steps that happen in our head in the process of inference, as we reach a conclusion. He wanted to make these steps visible because they usually happen automatically and without our awareness. Because we are not naturally aware of the steps we have no control over them. We can’t communicate our thought processes to others; we can’t examine them to see if they are coherent; we can’t change them when they are no longer helpful. Becoming aware of one’s own inference processes is considered indispensable for learning to do things differently as well as for organizational learning.

The version of the Ladder of Inference that I most commonly use is a fairly simply one and related to Argyris’s original. It looks like this: 20160923_174250.jpg

The Pool of Data is all the objective evidence or facts available on the topic. Some people describe this as what might be captured by a video camera. Everyone has access to all of this.

In the Data Selection step I draw on experiences or knowledge I have in connection with the given topic.

In the Added Meanings step the I interpret the data I have selected and “react” (often emotionally) to the examples or experiences I have had.

The Conclusion step represents my worldview or deeper underlying assumptions. It expresses how I think the world should be. It is often a very general point and can be somewhat philosophical (as you will see below).

The Action step is the one step that is always visible. The steps that I have gone through in the automatic, unaware process of inference lead me to certain almost inevitable ways of behaving.

An example of this might be as follows:

Say my conclusion is that people should stand on their own two feet and not expect support from others.

Data I might (unconsciously) be selecting from the Pool, which start me on the way to this conclusion: Success stories of people who have pulled themselves up by their boot straps and felt stronger and better for it, psychological or philosophical theories that suggest that people do better if they achieve things on their own (the [in]famous “Research shows …”), my personal experience of standing on my own two feet, etc.

Meanings and interpretations I might automatically add to these stories and theories I have selected: It is natural for human beings to rise to challenges and it helps them develop and come into their own. Providing support interferes with this development process and makes them dependent (an undesirable state in my worldview) for life.

Natural, congruent actions flowing from this particular Ladder of Inference might be: Voting for small-government parties, supporting charities that explicitly require the recipients to contribute to their own advancement, or exhorting people to “pull their socks up and get on with it.”

If I choose different data or meanings, my conclusion and actions are almost certainly going to be different, too.

Not clear? Don’t worry. I suspect I’ll be posting on this topic and the related model, Inquiry, fairly often.