What If We Softened Our Judgments With Curiosity?

7 Feb

It’s happened to most of us at some point. You’re waiting patiently for a prime parking spot on a busy center city street, idling several feet ahead of the space, ready as ever to back your car right into it. Then, all of a sudden, completely out of the blue someone from behind the departing car jumps in and nabs YOUR space. A typical reaction might be something like:

“What an [insert expletive here]! How could he be so rude? He should be banished from the streets or, no, better yet, banished from this world! I want to pound him. He’s ruined my day for sure.”

But what if, almost immediately following your initial, reflexive reaction of anger and incredulousness, you then let a hint of curiosity about what compelled the space-stealer’s actions permeate your rock-solid conviction that he is a complete jerk? What if your judgmental thoughts were combined not only with curiosity but also a modicum of empathy, which in turn allowed you to consider that maybe, just maybe, there was a legitimate reason for his poor behavior?

What if the conversation in your head went something like this instead:

“What an [expletive]! I can’t stand him! Hmm, I wonder why he stole my space. Is it possible that he had a legitimate reason? Could it be that he was late for a job interview that would prevent his family from being evicted from their apartment? Or, maybe his wife was in labor at the hospital around the corner?

Maybe he was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he honestly didn’t realize I was already in line for the space? I’ll never know the real reason, and it was definitely a really crummy experience, but what’s done is done. Time to find another parking space and move on with my day.”

At the very least, if you can interrupt the negative emotions you’re experiencing for just a few seconds it will keep your anger from building further and take some of the sting out of your bad experience. If you can open your mind to curiosity and compassion for 30 seconds or more, there is a good chance that you will drive away no worse for the wear and actually forget about the experience.

Thanks to experts in the field of neuroplasticity, we now have a substantial base of research that shows that we really can shift not only our mood in a particular situation, but also our recurring patterns of thought on an ongoing basis. The first conversation above would invariably leave your anger festering. Equally upsetting, your bad mood following the incident could lead you to treat a colleague, friend or someone else, who is entirely undeserving, in a way that causes you to feel ashamed later, thus perpetuating the cycle of negativity.

But, what if you let your thought patterns follow the course of the second conversation above, the one that takes your thinking from entirely angry and upset, to still a little sore but also a bit curious and open to the possibility that there could be legitimate reasons for this man’s ‘undesirable’ (a less negative word than ‘rude’) behavior?

By allowing some positive thoughts to enter your mind, there is a very strong possibility that your entire mood will shift. Heck, there’s also the chance you might even recall the time you stole a prime parking space from some unsuspecting soul (for a legitimate reason, of course).

The positive effects of shifting from a mindset of exclusively judgment, to one that also includes curiosity and allows for a level of empathy and open-mindedness applies to far more than a stolen parking space. Some other possible scenarios that might hit closer to home for you:

  • An employee still hasn’t sent the email that you asked him to send to a client the day before. It’s totally understandable that you may feel annoyed and concerned about it. But, can you also inject some curiosity into those thoughts? Can you say to yourself, “I wonder why he didn’t send the email? Could it be that he didn’t know what to write but felt like I might be upset with him if he asked me for input? Is he overwhelmed with work and doesn’t know how to prioritize? There’s always the chance that he wasn’t being insubordinate.”
  • You see a woman walking down the street in an outfit you think is hideous, and it triggers a snap judgment, something to the effect of: ‘What an outrageously hideous outfit! She clearly has no fashion sense! How about turning your conclusion about her lack of style into a question instead: “Yikes, I really don’t like her outfit. While it’s definitely not my style, maybe she’s ahead of her time and knows fashion trends that I’m not yet aware of? Maybe she’s on her way home from a costume party where the theme was ‘standout fashion’? Clearly, I have no idea.”
  • You are already in a bad mood from a stressful day at work, and on your drive home you see a larger than life-size sculpture that you don’t like. Perhaps if you verbalized your reaction, it would sound something like, “Wow, the artist who made that thing must be nuts. It’s awful. Whoever decided it should be located in a public setting is also crazy.” What if you shifted your thought process to one that’s not so closed and judgmental? How about a more open-minded mental state that allows for the possibility that it could be that you don’t know a lot about this type of art. Or, maybe this particular piece is ‘simply over your head’ (a phrase I use when I can tell that I am making an unreasonable presumption that my opinion is the only opinion and everyone should agree with me).

The next time you realize you’re judging someone (stranger, friend, relative, colleague, etc.), or a particular situation or issue, try changing some of your (verbalized or not) thoughts to questions rather than statements and see what happens. Try being curious about the reasons why someone did or didn’t do something that bothered you rather than viewing it only in a negative light and assuming your judgment is accurate and your perspective is the only one possible.

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