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Work Smart

8 Habits of Curious People

We are born curious, but when answers are valued more than questions, we forget how to ask. Here's how to relearn an old habit.

[Photo: Flickr user Davide D'Amico]

Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 habits to adopt to be better at your job in 2016. See the full list here.

As children, we’re naturally curious—it’s how we grow and learn—but by the time we start school that sense of wonder starts to escape us.

"Answers are more valued than inquisitive thought, and curiosity is trained out of us," says Hal Gregersen, founder of the 4-24 Project, an organization that challenges leaders to spend four minutes a day asking better questions. "The average six- to 18-year-old asks only one question per one-hour class per month. Contrast that with the average teacher, who peppers kids with 291 questions a day and waits an average of one second for a reply."

But regaining our sense of curiosity is important to our success: "We’ve moved out of the industrial era and into the information era. Curiosity is a fundamental piece of that work and a powerful tool," says Kathy Taberner, cofounder of the Institute of Curiosity, a leadership coaching team that focuses on curiosity.

While we’re born curious, experts say we can relearn the trait. Here are eight habits of people who’ve retained their sense of curiosity:

1. They listen without judgment.

Most of us size up and make assumptions as we listen to others. Curious people, on the other hand, have no hidden agenda, says Taberner. They seek to understand the perspectives of others, and are willing to sit in ambiguity, open and curious without being invested in the outcome.

"Curious people are non-blaming, non-shaming, and supportive, working together, focused on exploring options to find the best solution, one that supports collaboration and leads to innovation," she says.

2. They ask lots of questions.

Curious people ask questions that start with "how," "what," "when," "where" and "why," says Taberner.

"They stay away from questions that can be answered with a yes or no," she says. "This creates openness for the person who is being asked, and for the person who is asking."

3. They seek surprise.

Many of us have a love/hate relationship with surprise, says Tania Luna, coauthor of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected. "When we have too much surprise, we experience anxiety, but when we don't have enough, we get bored and disengaged," she says. "We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they're not."

Curious people welcome surprise in their lives. They try new foods, talk to a stranger, or ask a question they’ve never asked before. "Welcoming surprise is just asking yourself, ‘How alive do I want to feel?’" Luna says.

4. They’re fully present.

Curious people turn off their phones and focus on conversations, says Taberner.

"It means not cooking dinner while talking to your families," she says. "If you’re multitasking, you’re not creating space to be curious."

5. They’re willing to be wrong.

The ability to shelve a sense of being right in favor of being open to the insights and opinions of others is a trait of curious people, says Sue Heilbronner, cofounder and CEO of MergeLane, an accelerator program that focus on female-run companies.

"There are tremendous benefits to a culture of curiosity in companies, particularly among leaders," she says. "Curious teams always look at a broader array of options for product innovations, marketing angles, and solutions to problems. A team lodged in ‘rightness’ does the opposite."

6. They make time for curiosity.

Heilbronner advises leaders to take one day a month to think of scenarios that are three years in the future, to question all of their major assumptions, and to wonder if they’re doing things they no longer should be doing.

"Curiosity often must be instilled intentionally," she says. "It comes from intentional pauses."

7. They aren’t afraid to say, "I don’t know."

Curious people are always seeking new knowledge by engaging in conversations. When asked a question, they aren’t afraid to admit when they don’t have an answer, says LeeAnn Renninger, coauthor of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.

"It's more important for them to learn than to look smart," she says.

8. They don’t let past hurts affect their future.

Our minds have two parts: one that has new experiences and one that understands those experiences, says David Klow, founder of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago. One cannot work without the other.

"The problem for many adults is that we stop being curious about new experiences and are instead focused on understanding what we've already been through," he says.

This is especially true if we’ve been hurt in the past. Curious people, however, develop a strong base and are more apt to take risks, says Klow.

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