How “Leaning into Curiosity” Can Help Your Relationships

We must learn how to lean into our vulnerability, stay curious, and practice courage.” —Brene Brown

How many times has this happened in your relationship?

You bring something up to your partner that is upsetting you….and they react and get defensive?

Common, right?

OR… Your partner comes to you with some criticism or feedback, and you can’t help but defend yourself and tell them your side?

Most of us can say we have experienced this from both sides. Whether it’s a tiff about who is doing the dishes or something way more serious, we all have a hard time hearing out our partners when we have a different point of view or feel attacked.

Let’s see what this can look like by using a fictitious couple, John and Mary:

Mary: “Hey, I have been meaning to talk to you. It seems like you haven’t been picking up around the house. It’s feels like everything is my job around here.”

John: “Do you know how busy things have been at work? You are always nagging me about everything around here. I didn’t see you outside shoveling snow the other day!”

When we feel under attack, it’s hard not to respond by getting defensive or beginning the comparison game. Many times, we react in this way when we feel our partner (a) doesn’t understand what we are going through, (b) doesn’t appreciate all we do in the relationship, or ( c) doesn’t think we can do anything right. In response to these feelings, many times our protection goes up. And once we have that protection up, we start defending ourselves.

So how do we stop this from happening? One way to prevent this is by leaning into curiosity. What I mean by that is staying curious about your partner’s motives in what they are saying BEFORE you begin reacting. You may still feel defensive and even hurt by their initial comment, but before responding…get curious.

Here’s what John and Mary might have done instead:

Mary: “Hey, I have been meaning to talk to you. It seems like you haven’t been picking up around the house. It’s feels like everything is my job around here.”

John: “Has it felt like I haven’t been helping as much? What’s that been like for you?”

In this example, instead of reacting to Mary’s comments, John gets curious. In doing this, he gives Mary a chance to feel heard and seen. Instead of getting defensive and angry, she has the opportunity—through his curiosity and lack of defensiveness—to express herself more and feel supported. The conversation might continue like this:

Mary: “Yes, I feel like I am doing everything around here. I know you’ve had a lot on your plate lately, but what about me? I don’t think you even see everything I am doing around here.”

John: “You are doing a lot. What could I do to make it easier on you?”

Even though it would feel WAY more satisfying to tell Mary how much John has on his plate… it’s not going to be helpful. He can always go back later and tell her this part. But at first, it’s always better to STAY CURIOUS. By leaning into curiosity, John begins to understand why Mary is bringing this up. And Mary feels heard and seen by her partner. And typically, when a person feels heard and seen, they begin to become more vulnerable, let their guard down, and lessen their attack. After John has stayed curious with Mary, he could always revisit the conversation and communicate his feelings. Here is an example of how that might go:

John: “You know how you were talking earlier about how you feel like you’re doing everything around here? I think I’ve been really overwhelmed at work lately. Sometimes I just don’t have the energy to pick up. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like you appreciate the things I do…like shoveling the driveway when it snows.”

This is John’s chance to talk about his feelings and needs. It’s also Mary’s chance to lean into curiosity and try to understand John. When each person takes a turn at getting curious and trying to understand each other…true communication takes place.

One important note: There’s always time to go back and say what you needed to say. Many times, in communicating with a loved one, we feel a sense of false urgency…a need to communicate our needs or feelings immediately in a disagreement. However, this can lead to neither person in the relationship feeling heard or seen by the other. If your partner approaches you about an issue they are upset about, lean into curiosity and try to understand what he or she is thinking or feeling. If you are worried about missing an opportunity to say what you are feeling or are worried you might forget, write it down. That way, you can focus your energy on getting curious and understanding them.

So, the next time your partner comes to you with an issue or reacts sarcastically to something you said, instead of reacting, take a moment to lean into curiosity. Get curious about where they are coming from. Try to remember that no communication is about who is right or wrong…it’s about understanding each other. If you go into a conversation with your partner with curiosity, you have a way better chance of gaining understanding as well as your partner’s trust.

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