Every time my husband asks me “Why?” I have a visceral reaction. I can’t help it, I dive down into my defensive place ready to explain the five excellent reasons why I made a certain decision or took a certain action. Unless I’m tired and then I can’t even get to explaining because I’m angry or hurt and I just react.
It’s not my best routine.
And then today, I saw this Walt Whitman quote on my Facebook feed:
Be curious, not judgemental.
Ahhh, there’s the rub. Any ‘why’ question can come from one of two places: a place of judgement or a place of curiousity. And it can be received assuming judgement or curiousity. So, as I see it, there are four possible ways for any interaction to play out.
- Asked: Curiosity | Assumption: Curiosity
This is where the magic happens. Real learning is capable of emerging on both sides when people listen with wonder and speak openly about their whys. I love being here, it’s why I enjoyed college so much and why I gravitate to people who are open to possibility. This is my sweet spot.
- Asked: Curiosity | Assumption: Judgement
This is a hard place to be stuck in. When the question is asked with sincere curiosity but it is perceived to come with judgement. Tension rises quickly here as the receiver feels threatrened, meanwhile the asker wonders, “How did this escalate? I was just curious.” If this happens too many times, it becomes a self-fulfulling cycle — I’ve been there, and it takes the receiver giving the asker the benefit of the doubt to start over and listen to the question differently.
- Asked: Judgement | Assumption: Curiosity
This is a hard place to get to. Being willing to respond with curiosity when someone comes with judgement takes courage and a positivity that I can rarely get to. When I think about people and groups that are subject to judgement regularly, I have so much appreciation for those who consistently respond with grace. Honestly, I am not very good at this; maybe that is why I have so much respect for the people I know who are.
- Asked: Judgement | Assumption: Judgement
No relationship can live long in this place. Anger, frustration, hurt — they all live in this place. If every why comes from judgement and is received as judgement, there is no possibility of learning, no magic of growth. The few times in my life when I have found myself here, I have worked to pull myself out. Sometimes I’ve fixed it through hard communication and sometimes by walking away. I just can’t live in a world without why — or with constant judgement.
Today, reading that simple quote, it reminded me that even when judgement is intended, it is only through remaining curious that we are capable of learning. It reminded me that starting with the assumption of curiosity will keep me open to growth.
Especially when I’m tired.