The Conversational Fire of Curiosity

 A Vibrant Sense of Curiosity is Always in Short Supply.

        Auguste Renoir, The Conversation

Over a lifetime we may be lucky enough to collect a wonderful mix of friends and family. The rewards are many and varied, but we are especially fortunate if they include persons who have the capacity to explore the revealing details of another’s experience. A person’s innate desire to know more about their interlocutor is an asset that means even more than the ability to listen accurately.

Most of us can often identify a person and a particular place when our connection with a genuinely curious person blossomed into a memorable moment. For me the rewards of this kind of conversational oasis were clearly evident when our family paid a routine visit to my sister’s future in-laws. I was just beginning high school, and had been advised by a parent that Faith was an “unusual” person, often with her head in a book and a penchant to talk about “strange” things like theology and philosophy. Those were considered exotic topics in our practical family.

She may have been my parent’s age, but spending time with Faith was a small but important revelation. For part of our visit of several hours she took a keen interest in what I was doing, what my classes in a new school were like, and what I wanted to do with my life. Then she listened and asked more questions. I’m not sure I ever felt the warm spotlight of someone else’s attention so completely before. I had the feeling that she found me fascinating. I simply had not encountered someone who so completely gave themselves over to the typically modest and confused existence of a middling high school student. In those few minutes Faith demonstrated the kind of intellectual curiosity that I still try to foster with my own students.

Think of conversational curiosity as a rare double-down: listening times two.  Most of us can engage in what is usually the mutual pretense of showing interest in another. That often registers as conversational responsiveness. And it’s a functional and useful courtesy in everyday life. We certainly understand that the reverse is more unpleasant: that stuck-alone-on-an-island feeling when we are on the receiving end of a person emptying their mind of too much accumulated baggage.  As everyone knows, the self-obsessed can suck all of the air out of a room.

By contrast, curiosity is a gift to another interlocutor. At its best it seems to spring from a heightened appreciation of things and events. Where most of us see a single subject, the curious see interwoven threads. When too many of us are dominated by the need to express or judge, the curious have an interest to know or discover.

Curiosity cannot be willed. It requires someone who is relatively secure with who they are.

If this sounds easy, it isn’t. This trait thrives on mental energy that too often gets drained away by insecurities that arise from the need for frequent affirmation. The withering of this impulse is also abetted by our preoccupation with the endless chatter of constant messaging that feeds mostly private fixations.

Effective teaching requires curious questioners who can function as surrogates for others less willing to engage. These kinds of active learners give needed energy to a classroom. Woe to the teacher when they are in short supply. The same applies in the boardroom as well. The CEO of a technology company recently noted that without curiosity “You’re dead.” With it “you’re more inclusive, you question more, and you listen.”[i]

[1] Tiger Tyagarajan, “If You’re Curious, You Hold the Keys,” New York Times, Sunday Business, July 11, 2014, 2.