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The new flow meters at a Southern California water utility were acting strangely. They’d been replaced within the past year, but some showed readings that were inconsistent with the previous year’s results. Bob, the senior manager of all the pumping plants, was inclined to blame the technicians who were calibrating the meters. After all, the meters were new, so they were unlikely to malfunction. Bob was pretty sure he was right. However, he wondered if other factors might be at work.
He called Arnold, one of the team managers who serviced the meters. “What’s going on with those flow meters?” he asked. Glad to be consulted, Arnold explained that the inconsistent readings were all coming from valves that had been placed outdoors. The new meters were not designed for use in the hot California sun. Bob quickly realized that if they were not replaced promptly, the flow readings for the whole district were likely to be compromised, with potentially catastrophic results.Bob thought he knew the answer to the problem. But before acting, he considered the chance that what he thought was not the only answer, and thereby solved a problem that could have had disastrous consequences.  Instead of approaching the situation with an attitude that he already knew the answer, he wondered about alternative explanations.

When Bob spoke to Arnold, he was open to Arnold’s message. He listened curiously.

What are the elements of curious listening?

When we listen curiously, we come from a mindset of wondering rather than one of already knowing. Maybe we know; maybe we don’t know. We are open, curious, and present in the dialogue in the current moment, not in the past of what we have already said and done.This curiosity is the seed of creative problem-solving.

Curious listening is an attitude rather than an action. Visionary leaders often have the quality of openness to new possibilities, but most of us need to work to develop this habit.

Ask yourself:

  • What would it take for me not to know the answer right away?
  • How can I allow the space for uncertainty, discovery, and creativity?
  • Can I simply be present with another person without the need to judge them, fix them, solve a problem, or take immediate action?

Relating to life and people from curiosity and openness is often, ironically, the best way to get the best solution to a problem. Succumbing to the need to put the other person in a box (younger, less experienced, lower status, had the wrong answer last time…) and jump immediately to the solution that first comes to mind may ultimately cost our organizations and us immensely. Curious listening is the antidote to the problem of rushing for immediate answers.

Who listens curiously?

Effective mediators listen curiously when they ask each side to give its version of a situation. Parents often listen curiously when children run in the door from school saying, “Guess what happened today?” Spouses may listen curiously when they ask each other, “How was your day?” And good managers listen curiously when confronted with problems that may have complex or multiple answers.

Could you give it a try?

It may feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to give up the role of being the person who always knows the  answer right away. But if we are willing to embrace curiosity and uncertainty, we open vistas of possibility untethered by our past.

 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this post on 8 Habits of Curious People.

Read other Better Writing. Better Business blog posts:
The $30 million Revision

Apologize and Be Forgiven

The Real Cost of Unclear Messages

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Why choose WorkTalk trainings?

  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
  • Customized. +

    Every Worktalk training is customized to the client's needs. We meet with you, analyze writing samples from your organization, and customize our training to target the specific challenges that employees in your organization face.
  • Energetic and entertaining. +

    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
  • Proven results. +

    In trainings all over the country, Ms. Danziger has enabled participants to streamline their organizing process, eliminate persistent errors, and drastically cut their revision time. Clients spend less time on key communications while producing better relationships and results. Sales people get more positive responses from prospects.
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