Leading through discord: Curiosity in the face of conflict

Dr. Michael O’Brien
Curiosity, even in the face of conflict, doesn't have to kill the cat.

Many people didn’t want to look directly into the face of those people whose beliefs were in conflict with their own.

In the past, we have written about the benefits of curiosity to become a stronger, more well-rounded leader. Without natural curiosity, executive leaders will find themselves outmoded, outpaced and outshined by their competitors.

Still, it’s one thing to be curious about, to go deeper into a topic that interests you. It’s quite another to take a long, hard look at the things that you find upsetting and make sense of another’s seemingly senseless idea.

A surprise upset, a lack of curiosity 
In the wake of what many described as a surprising political upset in the latest presidential election, that old adage that “curiosity killed that cat” may be in the mind of many. In a way, it may have been a lack of curiosity in a world outside the one they interact with every day that led to much of the befuddlement that some are experiencing today.

Many people didn’t want to look directly into the face of those people who’s beliefs were in conflict with their own. Even more who rooted for a different outcome will have trouble looking at the results and understanding the implications.

“When things are disturbing, our natural response is to look away.”

When things are disturbing, upsetting or troubling, our natural response is to look away. This is an evolutionary feature that was designed to save our skin, essentially the same impulse that causes us to pull our hands away from a hot stove.

Yet for leaders, the ability to not only look at sources of conflict – both within yourself and external – but to be actively curious about what is driving them, is absolutely vital.

What happened, what’s happening and what can happen
To be able to fully work through a breakdown, you need to understand what happened, what is happening, and what can happen. To do this, you have to muster up your courage and look at the thing that upsets you.

Start by looking at where you are now, the actions that led you there (what happened). Following that, look at the environment around you. Recognize the different personalities and priorities at play. Ask questions that will reveal the inherent logic within the other person’s thinking (what is happening). From there, try and find points to identify with, seeking commonality and compromise where appropriate (what can happen). In the wake of discord and upset, it’s important to face down our fears and be curious about finding common ground.