Skill #2 – Be Curious: Think of this skill as an effort to literally shift your perspective by asking questions so that you can see the issue from the same perspective as the other person to better understand where they are coming from.
Consider these screenshots:
If you have the view (i.e., perspective) shown in the screenshot on the left, you might have a very hard time believing that what you are seeing is a representation of a face. You might even argue passionately against the idea that the pile of stuff you see represents a face. However, if you see the same collection of items from a different perspective (as in the second screenshot), you can clearly see how the same pile of stuff can, indeed, be seen as a face.
If you doubt these two screenshots show the same collection of items, check out the video evidence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3LOlCdjcW0&t=49s
Dislodge from your own perspective
Often when having difficult discussions or arguing, it is all too easy to become entrenched in our own perspective or our feelings about the situation. The goal of being curious is to put your own perspective and feelings aside for a moment and trying to truly understand how your partner might see or feel about the situation. How can they be saying they see a face when all that is apparent is a pile of stuff?
Being curious and shifting perspective doesn’t mean that you need to agree with the other person. It does not need to result in saying you were wrong, and they were right. It simply helps you see the world, even if just for a moment, from the other person’s perspective. This perspective-taking is crucial in being able to truly understand someone else and allow them to feel heard. If you understand their perspective and they understand yours, this will often begin to point toward solutions or resolution.
Emotions are almost always involved
As a psychologist who provides a lot of marriage counseling, I frequently notice couples arguing about the details of a situation. They are seemingly trying to convince each other that their own perspective of the situation is the “right” one. However, both perspectives are usually valid and what isn’t being understood is how each other feels about the situation or why they see things that way. Being curious about how the other person feels rather than the facts of the situation, often requires that we put aside our own feelings for the moment. The good news is that once someone feels heard and understood, this can free them up to focus on understanding your perspective and feelings about the situation.
During difficult conversations, you might find that you struggle to know what questions to ask or even identify any curiosity questions that would help you better understand the other person’s perspective. With any new skill you are trying to learn, it takes practice and willingness to make such changes. It is important to share these new approaches and skills with your partner so you can be on the same page and practice together.
As an opportunity to consider how you could apply this concept, invite your partner to answer the following question:
“What is the worst food?” (Notice this question is intentionally vague to allow them to create their own definition of “worst”).
Even if they give the very same answer you would give, be curious about both what, specifically they think is the worst food, and why they think so. Is it the smell, the taste, the texture that they dislike? Is it only when it is raw or also when cooked? Is it about the health implications of eating the food? Has this always been the food they would say is the worst? Do they experience specific feelings when they think about this food? Is there something in their life experience that contributes to why they think this is the worst food? What other questions might you think to ask to help you understand the reasons they think this is the worst food?
The other person’s answers to these questions will likely help you better understand what they think is the worst food and the various reasons why they think or feel that way. Their answers will also give you valuable information to use in step 3, which you can read about more fully in the next (and last) blog in this series.
In short, the next step will be to communicate to them your understanding of their feelings and perspective. Express to them your understanding of what food they think is the worst and why so you can confirm if you are understanding correctly or not. So, without intentionally being annoying or dense, keep asking questions until you really understand. Interestingly, some of the questions you ask could potentially lead to a better understanding from your partner of their own perspective or feelings.
Again, with any new skill or concept, it is important that you spend time practicing or mentally exploring the new skill(s) or concept. While you are doing so, be curious about what might work for you (and your partner) to improve your ability to listen to understand and communicate that understanding so others feel heard. Also, be gentle with yourself as you practice. You won’t always use the skills well or get the outcome you desire; that is why you are practicing.
I invite you to use the example above or the tips below to practice. Your partner has the right to their own perspective on the world and to experiencing unique feelings in a situation. Slow down and take the opportunity to try and see the world from their perspective and understand how they feel and why, even if you don’t want them to feel that way. Even if you disagree. Even if you feel strongly otherwise.
Tips for being curious:
– Ask questions about the other person’s views with the intention of trying to see things from their perspective.
– Ask questions about the other person’s feelings with the intention of trying to understand and imagine how they feel, not take away their feelings.
– Think about the situation at hand and what possible contributors to their perspective or feelings might be.
– Don’t make assumptions and don’t argue about their answers.
– Make guesses that can help the other person say more about their perspective or feelings.
For example, you might ask something like:
o “Are you feeling overwhelmed by the situation? (or whatever feeling you can imagine they are experiencing)
o Can you tell me more about what is making you feel ____________?”
o “Are you feeling sad because ___________ or because ___________?”
o “Do you always feel this way in a situation like this?”
Support and guidance
While you might be able to learn and practice this skill with great success, working with a couples therapist can both speed up the pace in which you learn these skills and help you understand the concept behind them more fully. Starting therapy can also help you and your partner get on the same page and help you develop patterns that will be useful throughout your relationship, and most likely in other relationships or situations in your life.
Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He is licensed as a psychologist in Colorado and Florida. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.
If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call with Dr. Mike at Individual and Couples Therapy, please click here., then click Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.