Executive coaches aid their executives with impactful questions that help them realize their genuine desires and goals. The inquisitive nature of executive coaching has led many organizations to identify curiosity as an important feature of executive coaching. But what is the science of curiosity, how does it help executive coaches, and how can coaches embrace a more curious outlook on their executive’s concerns and goals? Continue reading for insight on six effects that curiosity has on executive coaches and their impact on clients.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” - Albert Einstein
The science of curiosity
What is curiosity? Are there personality traits associated with curiosity? And, how do curious people behave differently from those without curiosity? Continue reading to find out.
What is curiosity?
The American Psychological Association defines curiosity as “the impulse or desire to investigate, observe, or gather information, particularly when the material is novel or interesting.” They also relate it to the term “exploratory drive: the motivation that compels an organism to examine its environment.” Other researchers relate curiosity to “information-seeking behavior” (Kidd & Hayden, 2015).
Science tells us that curiosity is a foundational behavior of humanity. Children in the early stages of development explore their environments and adults spend hours skimming through information via music, videos, and internet search engines. Science has even regarded curiosity as “the noblest of human drives” (Kidd & Hayden, 2015). All forms and synonyms of curiosity have one unique characteristic in common: the desire for new information. Humanity’s desire to know more about the world through the arts and sciences is a primary example that has continued throughout history.
Curiosity, although not immediately recognized, is often the motivating factor for many actions in our daily lives. New business ideas are often tried out of curiosity and a desire to fill “a mental hole” and reduce “novelty.” Researchers have determined that people enjoy new things to a certain degree and have a sense of curiosity to avoid a lack of novelty (Oxford, 2012). However, some researchers state that curiosity is a motivational factor in and of itself (Oxford, 2012). Nonetheless, curiosity is an innate drive for more information that is present in varying degrees in all people.
Personality traits associated with curiosity
Research has determined that individuals with more curiosity can “tolerate more uncertainty and novelty before withdrawing” and becoming overwhelmed. They are also more likely to have greater academic achievements, a “greater sense of well-being,” and feel as though their lives have meaning (Oxford, 2012). This correlation between curiosity and tolerance for new things is closely related to the Big Five Personality trait of openness. Those that have greater amounts of curiosity also tend to have a “non-defensive” and “non-critical” attitude (Kashdan et al., 2013).
“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” - E. E. Cummings
Behavioral differences of curious people
The personality traits associated with curiosity encourage several positive behaviors. Those who have more curiosity tend to be more open to new experiences and tolerate more nuance and novelty (Oxford, 2012). New experiences don’t intimidate those who are curious. Curious individuals are more likely to embrace abstract concepts and study them for new ideas (Cherry, 2021). They simply intrigue them into further exploration.
Furthermore, those with higher rates of curiosity have higher rates of emotional intelligence which is the ability to manage emotions (Leonard & Harvey, 2007). Curious individuals can manage their emotions better and thus are less reactive to circumstances or negative situations. Individuals that are curious are also less likely to “fall prey to confirmation bias.” This indicates that those with curiosity are able to reconsider their own ideas and consider new information that disagree with their ideas. Curious people are also less likely to believe in stereotypes about people groups (Gino, 2018). These reduced stereotypes also contribute to better relationships with others and support for team building.
Benefits of practicing curiosity
Now that we have discovered what curiosity is, the personality traits of those with curiosity, and the behaviors associated with curiosity, we can begin to examine how curiosity helps the executive coach. Executive coaches who are curious experience all of the benefits previously discussed in this article. However, when these benefits are applied to the executive coaching industry they offer additional benefits to both the coach and their clients.
“Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” - Samuel Johnson
1. Openness to new coaching methods
Executive coaches who are curious are more likely to accept new coaching methods into their executive coaching practice. This is especially important for executive coaches who wish to remain in the industry for a prolonged period of time. Scientific research over business practices and psychological topics that can benefit business organizations is constantly being conducted, producing new findings, and changing prior misconceptions. Being able to apply new and scientifically proven methodologies to the executive coaching practice ensures that clients are always given top-of-the-line, high-quality, and advanced coaching.
2. Greater emotional intelligence
When executive coaches have a great amount of curiosity, they are also more likely to have a great amount of emotional intelligence (Leonard & Harvey, 2007). Executive coaches can use their own emotional intelligence to encourage the development of emotional intelligence in their clients. For example, emotionally intelligent coaches will be more likely to notice stress in their clients and respond with intention, not their initial reaction. By responding with intention, executive coaches can help their clients learn to manage their own emotions and inspire them to practice emotional intelligence in their own business practice.
“Curiosity is the process of asking questions, genuine questions…” - Brian Grazer
3. Better questions
Due to the open and inquisitive nature of curiosity, executive coaches who are curious are able to ask better questions. Curiosity drives the desire for further clarification and more information which can only be discovered through questioning. Furthermore, when coaches are curious they are also likely to be “non-defensive” (Kashdan et al., 2013). Because of this non-defensive stance, curious executive coaches are more likely to ask questions about areas of business they have no experience in or have no knowledge of. The newly disclosed information spurred on by the questions of an executive coach can provide new information for the coach and an opportunity for purposeful reflection for the client as well.
4. More reflection
The scientific understanding that those with curiosity are more open to question their own understandings when new information is presented, enables an increased willingness to reflect on preconceived notions and behaviors. This is a key factor in executive coaching. Oftentimes, business leaders present their plan of action to executive coaches and as a result, are asked questions about how they believe their plan will play into their overall goal. This gives the business leader an opportunity to reflect on how their plans are intentionally supporting goals and allows them to start a conversation with their coach about their plans and goals.
5. Greater listening skills
Executive coaches who are curious about what their clients are experiencing are better listeners. The “best listeners” are said to be “naturally curious” people (Listening Partnership, n.d.). Their curiosity spurs them on to listen with genuine interest and be open to the comments made by their clients. This greater ability to listen can further help executive coaches ask more impactful questions that spark goal attainment. The Listening Partnership summarizes this well when they state that when “we take a curious stance, [it offers] our clients a sense of spacious inquiry.”
“When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity.” - Martha Beck
6. Greater trust
When clients feel that their executive coaches are genuinely curious about their viewpoints and perspectives, they are more likely to disclose important information to their executive coaches. Francesca Gino from the Harvard Business Review states that “when we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking questions, people like us more and view us as more competent, and the heightened trust makes our relationships more interesting and intimate” (2018). This finding can be directly applied to the executive coaching relationship making curiosity a catalyst for trust-building and impactful conversations.
“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.” - Leo Burnett
How to encourage curiosity
Curiosity is an innate characteristic in all mankind (APA, n.d.). From the beginning stages of development, children exhibit curiosity for their surroundings. This sense of curiosity maintains its presence throughout the lifespan but there are several things that can be done to further encourage its development.
Adopt the stance of a lifelong learner
Consider the story of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his heroic landing of a commercial aircraft on the Hudson Rivier. The Harvard Business Review states that “Although commercial flights are almost always routine, every time his plane pushed back from the gate he would remind himself that he needed to be prepared for the unexpected. “What can I learn?” he would think. When the unexpected came to pass, on a cold January day in 2009, Sully was able to ask himself what he could do, given the available options, and come up with a creative solution” (Gino,2018). Because of Captain Chesley’s eternal curiosity that pushed him to continually learn about the world around him, Captain Chesley was able to strategically make the best decision saving the lives of his crew and passengers. Ultimately Captain Chesley’s curiosity is what led him to continue the learning process which saved many lives.
“Encourage your own curiosity; pursue the problems based on that.” - James Mirrlees
Establish Learning Goals
Having learning goals in place of performance goals (where acceptable) can encourage curiosity and a willingness to try new things (Gino, 2018). When executive coaches establish learning goals for themselves, they are encouraging curiosity in their own executive coaching practice. For example, executive coaches who set a goal to learn three new coaching techniques are more likely to be curious about new coaching techniques.
Research shows that curiosity enhances mindfulness by reducing a negative response to ideas and perspectives (Kashdan et al., 2011). We can deduce from this research that mindful executive coaches have more opportunities to choose a curious outlook than those who do not practice mindfulness. When executive coaches practice mindfulness, they increase their awareness of their own ideas and through curiosity can begin to explore these ideas and understandings. Doing so can help executives evaluate which of their own methods are scientifically supported and which of those are not. This can ultimately lead to more effective coaching.
Dr. Bruce Perry shares that “confidence increases a willingness to act on curiosity—to explore, discover, and learn” (2001). While Dr. Perry’s claim is applied to the development of children, it is still applicable to the plight of executive coaches today. Executive coaches who are confident in their coaching, are not afraid to question their methodology and try new things. Confidence enables them to try new things without the fear of failure, thus encouraging a curious perspective.
The main takeaway
Curiosity is the desire for new information, the openness to new opportunities, and the ability to face challenges with acceptance. Executive coaches who are curious are open to new coaching methods, have more emotional intelligence, ask their clients better questions, encourage periods of reflection, are better listeners, and build trust with their clients. Executive coaches who wish to increase their curiosity can adopt the stance of a lifelong learner, make their own learning goals, practice mindfulness, and embrace confidence in themselves. Curiosity offers many benefits to executive coaches and their practice. Because of this, executive coaches should continually strive for a curious outlook on their practice.
“Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.” - William Arthur Ward
APA. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/curiosity
APA. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/exploratory-drive
Cherry, K. (2021, February 20). What Are the Big 5 Personality Traits? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422#openness
Gino, F. (2018, September). The Business Case for Curiosity. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-business-case-for-curiosity
Kashdan, T. B., Afram, A., Brown, K. W., Birnbeck, M., & Drvoshanov, M. (2011). Curiosity enhances the role of mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to existential threat. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(8), 1227-1232. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.02.015
Kashdan, T. B., Sherman, R. A., Yarbro, J., & Funder, D. C. (2013). How Are Curious People Viewed and How Do They Behave in Social Situations? From the Perspectives of Self, Friends, Parents, and Unacquainted Observers. Journal of Personality, 81(2), 142-154. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00796.x
Kidd, C., & Hayden, B. (2015). The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity. Neuron, 88(3), 449-460. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.010
Leonard, N. H., & Harvey, M. (2007). The Trait of Curiosity as a Predictor of Emotional Intelligence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(8), 1914-1929. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2007.00243.x
Listening Partnership. (n.d.). Curiosity: An Executive Coach's Best Friend: Listening Partnership. Retrieved from https://www.listeningpartnership.com/insight/curiosity-executive-coaches-best-friend/
Oxford. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399820.001.0001
Perry, B., Dr. (2001, March). Emotional Development: Curiosity - The Fuel of Development. Retrieved from https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/emotional-development-curiosity-fuel-development/
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