People often ask me what the fastest or most powerful way is to drive personal change. Are you curious in knowing what I recommend?
The answer is always to ‘be curious’!
The value of curiosity
Curiosity is a powerful change tool. It allows people to dissociate from their current experience and to be open to asking questions. It allows both reflection on what is and opens up new possibilities of what can be. It does this by allowing people to shift into a neurological state of learning and investigation, which opens the opportunity for understanding their experience in different ways and therefore potentially create lasting change.
What should you be curious about?
We get stuck when we run the same old process – Trigger – Reaction – Outcome. What may have worked in our past is not working now, so we understand the need to do something different, we just don’t know how. Things that automatically seem to happen (eg A client may say “I get angry when”) describe a trigger – reaction pair. When we believe that the reaction is unavoidable and the behaviours and outcomes it leads to are automatic, then we get stuck.
This means that we can be curious about all of the internal ‘signals’ that emerge as reactions to the many ways we are triggered. The thoughts we have, the feelings these generate, even our own internal ‘voice’ – these things are all great targets of curiosity. This is where we can have immediate impact – to break the chain of trigger-reaction -outcome and consciously decide to do something different.
What to be curious about?
Curiosity is valuable when we can ask ourselves value adding questions.
- When specifically (do I react like this),
- Where specifically (do I feel that emotion),
- What specifically (do I say to myself),
- How specifically (does it start, and finish)
These are all really good questions. They all create space and allow you to notice the experience.
On the other hand, asking ‘why do I (think/feel/ react that way) is not useful. Why does not matter (you cannot change that reason, anyway) and often only leads you into story and self-recrimination.
How do I get curious in the middle of a habitual reaction?
I often present the idea of an ‘air gap of curiosity’ to coaching and clinical clients as a powerful tool in driving change. The first step is to recognise that we don’t control the thoughts or feelings that we generate in response to a trigger. Your reactions are habitual and unconscious, so if you simply go from reaction to behaviour, then you get no change. As the saying goes, if you keep doing the same thing over and over, you will keep getting the same results. (This is often referred to as ‘the definition is insanity’). Since your reactions are automatic, using these as the basis for what you do will always lead you back to old, often outdated outcomes. An example might be “I feel myself get angry so I yell at the kids”.
Instead, adding an air gap of curiosity after the reaction provides a space for developing a conscious response that provides a better outcome. This air gap into which you insert the moment of being curious can last anything from a few microseconds to hours. It simply requires that you stop, notice, and make a conscious choice.
When you do this, several things happen
- You interrupt the unconscious reaction to behaviour
- You shift into a learning mindset, and allows you to challenge habitual patterns of behaviour.
- You can come up with options to respond differently
- You can start to understand the depth of control that you have in such moments, as opposed to being unconsciously forced to always be a victim to your reactions.
Through this process, you open the door to change.
For the example above, it might change to “that’s curious, I’m feeling angry. I wonder what else I could do now? “ – rather than go straight to the habitual behaviour of yelling.
The neurology of curiosity
The process of unconsciously reacting involves memory, the amygdala and lower cortical pathways. It happens fast and follows pre-set patterns. When you are curious, you engage the prefrontal cortex, and avoid the emotional ballast added by the amygdala. It means that you utilise thinking and imagination, search for options and can make a less ‘emotional’ response if that suits you. It takes you out of the reaction and opens up possibilities.
Changing the neurology is both key to learning and teaching yourself that change from the ‘old ways’ is possible. As you experiment with and find better responses, you begin to train your neurology to take this on as the ’new reaction’, moving you past where you were previously stuck.
Using curiosity to get unstuck:
- What unconscious reaction do you want to change?
- How can you be curious?
- What would happen if you could respond differently?
Contact me now to discuss how such processes could be used to help you get unstuck.