The Practice of Curious Observation

Curious Observation has emerged for us as one of the cornerstone practices that contribute to a person’s Empathy Quotient (EQ). We have set out to define these core EQ practices to help professionals heighten empathetic instincts and transform their creative, innovation, research and plan processes.

We view Curious Observation as “using curiosity and imagination to better anticipate the reactions and motives of others.” It draws inspiration from work done by John McKnight at Northwestern University who teaches people to seek out community artifacts and associations and use them to uncover those stories that illustrate the beliefs of community members.(He labels artifacts and associations as “the connective tissue between what you see and what it means” – a great phrase.) We found further inspiration in work done by David Marcum and Steven Smith in defining key characteristics that contribute to the success of people functioning within organizations. This excerpt from their work provides a wonderful insight into the sentiment behind the promotion of curiosity as a stimulus for heightening empathetic instincts. That is, the enhanced ability to suspend preconceived assumptions about someone or something and using curiosity to expose a whole new level of understanding.

Highly curious people are different than you might imagine. Think of someone you know who’s very open and who loves to engage and explore—they’re adventurous, flexible, artistic, unencumbered, and energized by new ideas. Now, think about someone you know that’s the opposite—organized, orderly, analytical, logical, structured, and methodical, with everything under the sun in its proper place. Which of the two would you put your money on to have the highest level of curiosity? As it turns out, the answer is neither.

According to decades of research by Dr. David Beswick at the University of Melbourne, people with the highest levels of curiosity have a rare, unique blend of both. “They have a sufficient sense of security in their world to put their cognitive maps in jeopardy,” he said, “without experiencing debilitating anxiety.” That blend creates heightened curiosity and the security to work in the intellectual space “belonging at the border between chaos and cosmos.” At first glance there appears to be a conflict between order and openness. In fact, when psychologists evaluate personality traits, there is a negative correlation between the two—the “orderly” aren’t open enough, and resist disruption to their systematic approach or arrangement of things. The “open” undervalue order, and curiosity is too carefree, easily accepting change without enough thought of the impact.

When order overrides openness, curiosity loses freedom to explore. If left to openness alone, curiosity loses structure and purpose. The highest concentration of curiosity isn’t created by adding an ounce of order to a pound of openness, or vice versa. Productive curiosity requires equal parts of both. People with high curiosity don’t see the world differently than the rest of us every minute of the day—but they do see it differently for a few minutes. In those minutes curiosity might catch a glimpse of a subtle difference in what appears routine to everyone else.

Watch a short set-up presentation on the practice at: