10 Tips For Curious Listening

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

–Albert Einstein

Now, I asked way too many questions as a child–questions that drove my parents crazy and my siblings crazier. At one point, I was actually banned from talking during movies because I was so relentless with my questions. I had a deep passion and thirst for knowledge, and was undaunted in my quest to find it. But my brain was not maturely developed, and simply asking questions isn’t a sign of a resilient curiosity. We have to know how to ask the right questions, backed by the right listening skills.

Let me be clear. I have a long way to go in developing mindful curiosity. I stumble through asking the wrong questions all the time. But after sitting in a therapy office for thousands of hours, hearing and asking a multitude of questions, I have a few thoughts on the subject. So here’s a short list of ways to develop a mature curiosity.

  1. Know your agenda. Then, set aside your agenda and listen.
  2. Consider your own predisposed perceptions and how they are coloring the questions you’re asking.
  3. Don’t just ask about the content of what the person is saying, ask also about the process.
  4. Slow down your response time to what you’re hearing. Take a deep breath and take a moment to process the whole landscape.
  5. Ask less questions, not more. Filter through and figure out what you really want to know, rather than asking five iterations of a similar question, as you try to refine what you’re asking.
  6. Ask sensory (what they see, hear, feel) questions more than logic (who, what, when) questions.
  7. Consider the whole picture, not just the immediate piece of the puzzle you’re encountering.
  8. Look for patterns.
  9. Once you’ve found patterns, look for a departure from the patterns and be curious about those.
  10. After listening,consider your agenda again and what you hope to gain from your interaction.

After you’ve implemented these tips, take some time to consider the conversation and be curious about what happened. Did the conversation take on a different shape and texture than anticipated? Did you learn anything you didn’t know before? Did your relationship with this person deepen in light of the questions you asked?

If you try this approach, I’d love to hear feedback. Let me know what you learn about yourself and about the other. Mindful curiosity has the ability to deepen relationships. I hope you find valued connection from your curious interactions with others.

Tribute to a Storyteller

I’m mourning the loss of a great, Baltimore landmark today. DiPietro’s is closed after 50 years in business. Most of you don’t know Fred, or his barber shop, and while it’s not an official Baltimore landmark, it should be.

On any given Saturday, running errands with my husband, I might end up at Fred’s by matter of convenience, or practicality. Admittedly, though, I would sometimes come along just for the opportunity to hear him talk. A conversation with Fred immediately transported you into The Sopranos, Goodfellas, or The Godfather—take your pick.

His barber shop was an actual man cave, hollowed into the basement of an office building, at the bottom of a concrete set of steps, and resplendent with pictures of every famous Italian you could ever think of. It smelled of old leather furniture and Barbasol, and the man could put on a show. Men would file in one by one to their Saturday morning sanctuary, awaiting the familiar sign that a story was forthcoming. I would observe all of this with great curiosity, and he would usually acquiesce to having a “girl” in his shop, although some of the other men gave begrudging looks in my direction.

Fred was always eager for another fresh face to tell his stories to, and, for their part, the men were just as eager to hear them—even the more weathered faces brightened at the prospect of a good story. My father-in-law had his hair cut there for 50 years, from the time Fred’s doors opened to the very end. And even after all those years, Fred would still come up as a topic of conversation around the dinner table. His tales were something of legend.

He has a thick accent and a thicker personality. He would take his time, with the stories and the haircuts. In between each snap of the scissors, he would stop and wipe the comb across his apron, reflecting on the next line, and delivering it with all the bravado he could muster. Believe me, it was a lot of bravado.

Every time I came in, he loved sharing the story of the first time he met my husband, at the age of 1, with Kermit pinned under one arm and a head of thick, straight, blonde hair, hand-in-hand with his Dad. I remember marveling at the details Fred could string together, even with the hundreds of men who must’ve come through those doors—details that made you feel like he cared. The man is practically family, and he certainly made you feel that way.

One of his most endearing qualities was his complete inability to understand what I do for a living. He eagerly stuck my business cards right between the cash register and the butterscotch candies, and whenever I was there, every time new customers stepped in, he would tell them they needed to come see me, swiping a card from the desk and plopping it in their unsuspecting hands. All the while describing me as some kind of hybrid between a physical therapist, medical doctor, and chiropractor. Mind you, when the men figured out what I actually do for a living, they would practically crawl under the couches to get away from the insinuation that they needed to “see me”—sound familiar?

When I saw that sign tonight it was a cheap, yellow homage to a man and his work. While it fit with everything that you would see in Fred’s shop, the contrast to the heart of the man couldn’t be more evident. Fred is a guy who knows how to care about people. With a larger than life personality and a memory that defies age, he welcomed in a brotherhood of men who would crowd around his chair, week after week, awaiting the next story.

People like Fred bring a certain cadence to our lives. The experience of going to see Fred, every few months, year after year, became a part of the fabric of living for many men in Baltimore. And it’s not until something interrupts that cadence that we tend to realize how invaluable it is, and how acutely we feel that loss. I got a little choked up tonight when I read that sign. With only a handful of times spent in his shop, I still felt the impact of his life on my surrounding world.

Fred is a man who lived his calling. In his shop, he never rushed, no matter how many guys were waiting, and he always took the time to share a good story. Any guy who went to see him will tell you, you didn’t just go for the haircut, you went for the show. And when you were with Fred, you were a part of the family.

I’ll leave you to reflect on the parallels. For my part, today, I’m grateful to celebrate a storyteller. Thank you, Fred, for teaching me so much about what that means—you remembered the details that were truly important and you knew how to share them. With you, a haircut wasn’t just a haircut; it was an invitation to robust living.

The Stouthearted Man

Every grimace and smile lights up the screen–the intense looks and clumsy maneuvers, the enthusiastic shouts and hand slaps.  And the song–well, it certainly fits: “And I built a home/ for you for me/This is a place where I don’t feel alone/This is a place where I feel at home” (“To Build a Home”, The Cinematic Orchestra).   Certainly no one would suspect I was talking about a beer commercial.  Many of you have probably already seen it, but for those who haven’t, please take a moment to watch before reading on.  I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

Six guys roll wheelchairs down a polished, wood court—intense and enthusiastic.  You watch the game unfold with a missed shot, awkward rebound, clumsy dribbling, then the tide turns with some creative assists, followed by a banked three-pointer, and an off-the-rim shot, all driven by a special camaraderie that makes this commercial genuinely intriguing.   But it’s not the game they’re passionate about.  The smiles are instant, connective responses to their teammates.  They have a child-like giddiness as they wheel their way around, stumbling over each other with a poorly defined defense/offense, intertwined in spokes and rims–crashing wheelchairs.

And then for the surprise:  as the last shot bounces off the rim and tips into the basket, they exchange delighted glances and cajoling slaps, and immediately stand up.  What? Yes, all but one stand up.  And that one declares his delighted affirmation that they’re getting better at their clumsy attempts to play his game.

If you weren’t already confused about what you were watching, this seals the deal.  And all the while, it’s being layered with an inviting voice projecting conviction: “ Dedication…loyalty…friendship: The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.”

Did I really just hear that?  Was it really coming from a beer commercial?  Is it just me, or are most of us (and every other article discussing this commercial) accustomed to a more superficial commentary on beer-drinking men?

All of this is still building momentum to the articulated metaphor at the end.  The moment where all six men gather around a table, delighted for the fellowship that comes after the hard work of respectful, humble curiosity, and then it ends with this line: “Guinness: Made of More”.

More of what?  The branding is amply clear that men are made of more than superficial and impulsive desires, and, according to the commercial, so is Guinness.

I already have a profound respect for the Guinness family.  I’m reading a book on the collective accomplishments of this remarkable lineage in and out of the brewery, and there are countless stories of their impact on politics, law, business, the financial industry, and the church.  They have also historically made some avant-garde decisions to care for their employees and communities–decisions that were imbued with compassion and hope.  The legacy of the Guinness family is clearly represented in this commercial.

So, what are they really driving at, here?  If you’re anything like me, you’re immediately drawn into a combative and intense dialogue with your own character.  “Am I made of more?  What would that even look like?” And so the contemplative question comes with a definitive answer:  What does it mean to be, “Made of more”?  The commercial preaches substance, quality, and the essence of real manhood; which could also include real womanhood.

The reality of what it means to be substantive, as defined by this commercial, reaches its pinnacle in the end.  For the sake of didactic value, let’s sum it up in one word: community.  Real manhood (and womanhood), in this context, is defined in terms of real community.  Community is valued connection, respectful sacrifice, and humble curiosity, to name a few.  These men have made an art form of dropping into wheelchairs week after week and letting go of their previous muscle memory to begin a humbling adventure into a new experience of their beloved sport.  Why?  For the sake of a guy they truly care about.

How many of us have taken such a posture to learn about someone we care for?  Not many, I would imagine.  To choose to re-learn a skill and see it from another’s perspective, well, let’s just say it’s not a natural, human response, and not something most of us aspire to.

The commercial ends with the guys gathered together at their local watering hole.  With its understated quality, the metaphor can get lost.  The decision to eat and drink together is representative of the great acquiescence to share life and community.

Have you experienced this type of community?  Would you be willing to engage in respectful curiosity to find it? This type of embodied community is the very stouthearted experience most of us long for, but don’t know how to articulate or ask.

Today’s Best Headline

This post is completely unrelated to counseling and a perfectly unsophisticated reverie into humor.  So the one thing I’ll say in a meager attempt to redeem it is that laughter is always therapeutic.  I’ve been accused of being overly serious, but it’s not that I am, it’s just that as an introvert I don’t always readily share my playful side.  It’s taken work for me to be generally playful, so I thought I’d maximize an opportunity to do so.  This revelation certainly made my day, and I’m happy to share it with fellow comic fans, Trekkies, and downright geeks alike: after all, the world of humor does not discriminate.

I had to double check today when I read this to make sure it wasn’t coming from The Onion.  Alas, it’s true.  For all of you Star Trek, X-Men, and/or Lord of the Rings fans: Patrick Stewart was married this weekend, and who officiated the ceremony, you ask?  None other than Ian McKellan.  Now, in case the humor is immediately lost on you, let me put this in perspective: Gandalf officiated Professor Xavier’s wedding!!

The brilliance of Sir Patrick Stewart’s choice of officiators is that there are a multitude of headlines we could go with, here: In an act of bi-partisan showmanship, Professor X invites Magneto to officiate his wedding ceremony, OR, Captain Picard is beamed into matrimony by the White Wizard.  I’ll let you use your curiosity and imagination in coming up with more. The better part, however, might be the myriad of costume choices I can only imagine being presented as options for Sir Ian McKellan.

Ultimately, though, who can deny the appeal of being married by the White Wizard?  Hopefully, the one ring to rule them all will see the couple to a different fate…