Photo with the word curious

Curious: My Word of the Year

After quite a few spins around the sun, I know I’m not a particularly successful resolutions keeper, and after a failed 19 in 19 list and a total flop of 20 in 20, I’ve ditched the Annual Checklists, too. Instead, I like to simply stick to a word of the year. Something that’ll keep me focused on the relentless desire for self improvement, without being overly prescriptive, because if the past two years have taught us anything, setting ridgid plans is risky and life demands flexibility.

There were a few words in the running for 2022. Joy––feels a bit forced in year three(?!) of a global pandemic. Balance––that’s a joke in my world, but could be cute for someone else. Mindful––great, but maybe a little too zen for my world. 

And then I took a class on inquisitive leadership at COA, an organization that has created workshops for emotional fitness and resilience. After the 75 minutes of lecture and one-on-one discussions, it was clear what my word needed to be: 

Curious. 

What a wonderful little idea! Even the word “curious” adds a twinkle to any inquiry. Aside from the potential of being a smidge annoying like a three year old protesting a nap, adopting a curiosity mindset allows you to kindly question everything from a place of positive interest and intent, rather than some of the more negative connotations, like annoyance, judgement, or disdain. And more importantly, getting curious allows you to better understand what’s beneath the surface of a challenge, situation, or misalignment, so you can make sure you’re solving the right problem. Amy Small already covered this idea brilliantly here, so I won’t belabor the point. 

Another joy of curiosity is that it lowers your defensiveness. As a creative, sometimes we get some pretty harsh feedback (or at least it feels that way). But instead of stewing in the feels of “not good enough” or blaming some third party on work that may have missed the mark, what if you stayed curious and asked yourself, why am I feeling so…defensive?

In the COA class, we learned that defensiveness rises up as a response to wanting to protect something––usually a sense of belonging, safety, feeling like a good person, or being good at your job. If you start to feel defensive, you can take a break, take a breath, and then when you’re ready, come back to check in on what you’re protecting. Once that’s been identified, can you move toward discovering what the feedback is actually saying? Maybe explore what you can learn so this mistake, misstep, or miscommunication doesn’t happen in the future? With curiosity, we move away from defensiveness and blaming and towards a neutral space where we can better understand, and iterate for next time.

And not like you need it, but a final reason to stay curious: after all the isolation the pandemic has brought about, I know I need a crash course in how to talk to people again. If you stay curious, and ask someone questions, you’re more likely to actively listen and less likely to make it weird. Curiosity shows that you care, and that care leads to connections. This is more than just with friends or acquaintances. Your clients and coworkers, especially direct reports, should be treated with maximum levels of curiosity. How are they, really? What are they struggling with? How can you, or your organization, best support them? How do they want to grow? What inspired them to want to grow in that way? So many questions!

Fun fact: scientists have studied how many questions is the ideal number of questions to ask in a ~15 minute conversation for maximum likeability. The answer is nine. You should ask nine thoughtful questions in 15 minutes to Jedi-mind-trick someone into liking you. Neat! 

Beyond the practical benefits of lowering defensiveness and making socialization less awkward, when was the last time you were truly curious about something? It doesn’t need to be something wild, like dinosaurs, space, or how not a single person on earth knows all the steps into making a pencil. Just let your mind wander with questions, without judgement. Maybe those questions will spark trying something new, or open up some new stores of empathy and understanding, or who knows! That’s the joy of staying curious. 

So I am now obligated to ask, because I’m curious—What would your word for this year be?