Posted: 01 Dec. 2021 10 min. read

Get curious for more powerful relationships

How are you? It’s a question most of us ask and answer many times a day. And yet, both the asking and answering are often so rote that the characterization of this phrase as a question is merely technical. Rather than an indication of any real curiosity about one’s well-being, how are you can often feel performative, like its main purpose is to signal that the asker is a polite person. Not that most of us consciously think about it this way. In fact, it’s likely most of us don’t think about it at all. We don’t think about asking it, answering it, or listening to the response. We just do all of it automatically. And while there’s nothing wrong with politeness, when it comes to building strong relationships, this particular exchange is likely doing little for us. Perhaps the only thing worse would be not to ask at all. But consider what could happen if you replaced how are you with something reflecting actual curiosity.

First, what is curiosity? In their book The Curious Advantage, Paul Ashcroft, Simon Brown, and Garrick Jones define curiosity as “exploring, asking questions, experimenting, and linking ideas, information, and knowledge,” or “putting your wonder into action.” Doesn’t that sound intriguing? I also love neuroscience expert Amy Brann’s definition of curiosity as interest with sparkle.

Curiosity makes learning engaging and fun. Who doesn’t know the pleasure of going down the proverbial rabbit hole when something catches your interest? I once fell down a rabbit hole about rabbit holes as I was trying to decide whether the phrase was an idiom or a metaphor. And I recently read an article about a poetry collection on hoarding, which led me to a delightful piece about people naming their robot vacuums, which led me to a commercial for robotic lawn mowers. Not what I expected to be learning about early on a Sunday morning, but quite interesting nonetheless. And you can bet all of the above were featured in the conversations I had in the following days, which is another benefit of curiosity—learning about new things can provide you with compelling topics of conversation that get you beyond the small talk that so many of us dread. That’s right—being curious can make you a more interesting person to talk to.

Which brings me to people’s favorite topic of conversation: themselves. Most of us love talking about ourselves. Research shows that it makes us feel good, lighting up the reward centers in our brains. This is one of the reasons that we need to make such a concerted effort to listen to others (when what we really want to do is talk about ourselves), but it also highlights why our relationships benefit when we get curious about someone else. When someone gets to talk about themselves because you’ve gotten curious, they will likely associate that rewarding feeling with you. And people are likely to share deeper information with you if they like you, but they’re also more likely to like you when they’ve shared deeper information with you. It’s a reinforcing circle.

How do you get people to share deeper information with you? By asking, for one thing. Authors Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker suggest asking for stories, not answers. So instead of “Where are you from?” try “What’s the strangest thing about where you grew up?” Or instead of “What do you do?” try “How’d you end up in your line of work?” Or instead of “How are you?” try “What’s different since we last met?” These questions can move you toward a deeper conversation, you’ll learn more about the other person, and they’ll likely feel positively about their interaction with you.

While it’s true that your curiosity can make someone else feel good, it’s beneficial for your relationships in another way: It can make relationship-building more fun and engaging for you. Strong working relationships are key to success for most of us. But building those relationships can take time and effort, both of which may feel in short supply when there are so many priorities filling our days. When you lean into curiosity, it can make the time and effort of relationship-building feel like something you want to prioritize rather than another chore on your to-do list. Kind of like reading a great biography. While not everyone is famous enough that books are written about their lives, I think you’ll find that if you lean in to try and learn more, most people have pretty interesting stories to tell.

We can also form stronger relationships by getting curious about a third thing together. When you find common interests, it can give your relationships shape and focus that they may otherwise lack. Sometimes you might share an intellectual interest. For example, our Science of Relationships team has a mutual interest in the topic of curiosity. We love to share articles, podcasts, and discussions about the topic, which brings us all closer (and also helps me write more compelling blog posts.) Some of my favorite colleagues are those who get curious about data with me. I see a kindred spirit in anyone who gets as excited as I do about a significant research finding. Other times, relationships might be enhanced by a shared interest in less cerebral topics. Our Business Chemistry team has recently bonded over our mutual affection for chickens, which is a whole other story.

While sharing a third thing can be powerful, we can also strengthen our relationships by delving into our differences. My Deloitte colleague Alex Weber suggests asking this question: “I don’t know what it’s like to be ABC, but I’m curious... can you tell me more?” You might ask such a question of someone from a different cultural background, a different role in your organization, or a different Business Chemistry type. What you learn can provide you with valuable information for how to make your relationship even stronger. Plus, you’ve again provided the other person with the rewarding opportunity to talk about themself. Win-win.

We’ve all got the spark of curiosity inside us, but sometimes you might need a little help fanning the flame. If you want to increase your own curiosity, try these suggestions:

  • Todd Kashdan, author of the book Curious?, suggests you “fake it ‘til you make it.” Even if you’re not feeling particularly curious to start out, when you ask open-ended questions, the other person is likely to say something that sparks your interest, and suddenly you may find yourself feeling more curious.
  • Not sure where to start? Practice question-storming, coming up with as many questions as you possibly can, then try to identify some black hole questions—those that are so intriguing they must be answered.
  • Or let someone else come up with the questions. A quick internet search of “get to know you questions” will pull up thousands to choose from.
  • Cultivate intellectual humility, which involves respecting other viewpoints, being willing to revise your own viewpoint, challenging your own intellectual overconfidence, and separating your ego from your intellect. In other words, embrace the fact that you don’t know everything.
  • Note your curiosity. Executive coach Patrick Ewers suggests writing down the times when you feel a spark of interest about something and labeling it curiosity. Then ask yourself (or the other person if in conversation) one or two questions that dig a little deeper to feed your curiosity further.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.