I am curious about what most underpins effective coaching – such as the curiosity of the coach by Jeremy Ridge

I am curious about why curiosity gets my attention as something that is fundamental to effective coaching.

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I am interested in the importance of the personal curiosity of the coach. After all, they are a central part of the whole process. The curiosity of the coachee, about their own learning process, is more easily appreciated as critical. However, traditional approaches to coaching, of course, tend to place the coach as the expert with all the answers, rather than someone also searching for answers, about exactly how best to behave as the coach. However where coaching seems up to, such as in being non directive, or in such as the principles of adult learning, appear to suggest a very different approach to expertise is appropriate. 

There are already plenty of terms and frameworks about coaching in use; but curiosity doesn’t seem to be one of them. And yet there is something that continues to attract my attention in the particular meaning to be found in curiosity. So I am interested in exploring this. It’s a curiosity thing!


1. Starting with being curious about others interest in curiosity

I start with a short summary of the range of views that gives some picture about others interest in curiosity – as I see them as connected to coaching.
In particular I would start with Einstein’s view as suggesting some particularly powerful perspective for what the term is about.

1.1. Einstein on curiosity

A good illustration of why curiosity is important can be summed up in quotes reported from Time magazine’s person of the century, Albert Einstein [1]:  

 “I have no special talent. I am just passionately curious”

For someone such as Albert Einstein to share such a perception as a person with no special talents is astounding. And then he identifies his only talent is a passion for curiosity. 
He also suggests curiosity as the central driver of life, even. [2]

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”

This perspective suggests the fundamental importance of continuous progress, and building of insight and understanding, as the real meaning of Curiosity. It is continuously building, as awareness, by finding the next frontier of what needs to be understood.  Curiosity is not just a moment to moment experience, shifting in the wind, but something more coherent; it’s about choosing how to live overall. 

Importantly for Einstein, Curiosity is a fundamental drive that starts everything, as well as a way that life can be explored. 

1.2. How curiosity matters to me in Coaching

For myself, I am intensely aware, and thus curious, about how each new person I meet holds a completely unique and different experience of life from my own. Access to this then adds to my own experience of life.

Of course, we can share similar experiences at some levels, especially with features that are the commonplace fabric of social life.

So, there is always a need to prepare for how unique and different that people, the Coachee, can be in Coaching.  It becomes important to move further on from what may be more polite social exchanges about everyday matters – eg the weather! 

I find I can get an intense stimulus because it holds my whole interest from experiencing this difference. And I often find this awareness can be fundamental to creating those elusive conditions for engaging the other person to start to explore, and share, where they are up to in their experience of their life.

But as I still seem to be experiencing use of the idea of curiosity in a way that is different from everyday use by some others; how does this compare with my own understanding and practice of coaching where the level of interest in other people can be important.


2. Other views about curiosity

2.1. Origin of the word:

Words are important to us. As life and society evolves, so the meanings of words can grow, and even change from their original use.

The origin of the word curiosity, and its meaning, in English, is reported [3] as from the sense of the term care. This emphasis given is also about being careful, with a quality of continued attention that is central, and important, in the meaning. 

More recent meanings of curiosity in dictionaries can refer more to it being eager to know or learn something … and something that might be strange. It can be used in a sense that is more for odd, single events or circumstances.

2.2. Other popular meanings:

Curiosity seems to be less studied as a term in the more academic world. However there are others who have picked up on the term.

“Curiosity is not an only child; it is part of a family of terms used by writers, scientists, and everyday people making conversation to capture the essence of recognising, seeking out, and showing a preference for the new.” Todd Kashdan [4]

A good overall summary about curiosity is in an article, “The Power of Curiosity” shared by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in the UK [5]

Curiosity is a multi-dimensional concept with no single definition, and overlaps extensively with related concepts, including creativity, inquisitiveness and openness to experience. In the context of this conceptual ambiguity, we approached curiosity through the following working definition: a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know

….. We uncovered three main theories about the nature of curiosity, how it comes about and why we feel it. 

The first, almost biological in nature, is that curiosity is a human drive, much like hunger or thirst, which is satiated by the acquisition of knowledge. The drive theory helps to explain the seemingly paradoxical use of resources (such as time or effort) to gain knowledge or experiences; analogous to the resources used to satiate hunger.

The second theory, more cognitive in nature, is that curiosity is evoked by incongruity between something (an event, object, etc.) and a person’s existing world view. We try to make sense of the world around us, and when an expectation about the way the world works is violated, curiosity is piqued

A third model, building on incongruity theories, but slightly more emotional in nature, frames curiosity as the desire to close an information gap between a given reference point (some desired knowledge) and a person’s existing information set. This model proposed by George Loewenstein “interprets curiosity as a form of cognitively induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding.”

This summary, again, represents tensions between whether curiosity is a process, or something more fundamental as a drive. There can also be an over emphasis that Curiosity may only be driven by some negative experience. However, especially in Coaching, Curiosity can be about looking for something more positive, such as in the sense of opportunities for the Coachee which may be more of a pleasant experience. It may even be key to balancing brain activity, how to find a balance between being bored, and overwhelmed, by stimulee. And where capacity for finding this balance may be the result of efficiencies achieved in making sense arising out of the way curiosity progresses and builds over time.

2.3. Other, still emerging, studies contributing to Coaching – ranging from mindfulness to positive psychology

There are increasing numbers of initiatives around which want to find the more positive approach to life, seeking opportunities not problems; whether to look at where we are in our lives as a glass half full, rather than half empty.

Mindfulness can emphasise stimulating awareness arising from the moment in immediate time; for example the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as:

the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis;[6]

In a recent newly launched journal about Mindfulness, Cathy Theaker [7] writes

Developing an evidence-based integrative model of coaching and mindfulness would complement mindfulness-based interventions in accordance with the positivist drive for standardisation, however currently many practitioners use mindfulness idiosyncratically. Chapman-Clarke (2016 and this issue) calls for an integrative approach, contextualised for the practitioner’s specific setting. 

Even academic Psychology is also now experimenting, through some curiosity, of what is referred to as Positive Psychology.  Some quite amazing mind maps of emerging approaches to positive psychology appear to embrace a very open minded approach to how to explore what this perspective may be about, [8] but it does not appear to have got to curiosity yet!

2.4. Reflection

I can appreciate, also, that for some people, reflection is an increasingly referred to term that they would interpret as having meaning close to curiosity. In the sense of a process contributing to enhanced internal awareness about matters. My own view of the term is that it is one part of a process of making sense of things; and that it is more part of a process than the sort of fundamental drive that the term curiosity brings.

2.5. Implications arising from others perspectives about Curiosity

There seems to be a lot of energy growing in a direction towards what Curiosity speaks to; albeit sometimes approaching through slightly different lenses.  However there is also quite a range of different uses of the term.

Some attention to the evidence, and understanding of how curiosity works for me, in practice is also worth consideration.


3. Evidence of my own practice patterns where curiosity matters significantly?

Given it is the behaviour of the coach that matters, how to behave curiously in a manner that is appreciated by another person can be important.

For the Coach, it is about removing any assumptions, rather like having a clean and open mind. And then, how to balance this with what could be seen as excessive curiosity is another challenge.

For me, curiosity is a choice about a way of life. It doesn’t start because it’s a subject at school, or a training course. For some reason, I hold a constant fascination with people. I stumbled increasingly into the world of listening and appreciating how different other peoples’ worlds are. What their attention was drawn to and how they were making sense of it across all walks of life is a form of constant research.

I can consider, briefly how my curiosity drive comes to operate in some examples of practice.

3.1. Adding curiosity to the definitive nature of using Psychometrics in Coaching!

If I introduce a psychometric profiling exercise to the coaching process,  I have to work hard to get across the need to be more curious about the unique nature of the person, than to appear as though they are being reduced to their psychometric profile, as an over simple generalisation.

I find psychometrics can help introduce important perspectives, about individual differences, for example, but which often then need to devolve into the Coachees ideas, and words about the perspectives involved. People can strongly prefer to make their own sense of themselves and how they fit into the mix of others.

Quite often Psychometric terms use every day language, but with quite particular meanings. In feeding back a profile, I am careful to be curious to all the signals given by the Coachee for their reactions to the terms used.

I have to be curious enough to pick up examples from the Coachee’s account of their experiences that can then be useful to illustrate and clarify features of any Coachee profile, and preferences.

Psychometrics can give permission to explore areas not encouraged? in every day discussions between people; but it is important to use them as an introduction, a gateway, a way of enabling deeper curiosity to get into the dialogue, rather than an end in themselves.

3.2. Being curious enough to enable links with the wider picture of the Coachee’s life and/or work

Coaching dialogues can open up into a very wide ranging dialogue around matters the Coachee sees as relevant to the opportunity that Coaching can invite.

Coaching has to start somewhere. 

Executive coaching typically starts with the objective/s. These are often set by others for the coaching sessions; e.g. the boss. The objective may be set as a generalisation, or headline, about a feature of the Coachee’s work behaviour, or performance.

Some Coaching approaches then go further into limiting the scope for curiosity by the Coach setting the method by which the coaching process will work. This can ensure they can get some control of the process. It seems, to me, like the Coach may then be setting and controlling the agenda to meet their own limited capacity for really relating to where the other person is coming from.

There are, indeed, times when micro, and contained, examination of the detail of some aspect of the Coachee’s agenda works well within these constraints and structure.

However, there are also times when the objective has to be seen as a symptom of something, rather than a definition of the agenda. And where the exploration needs to go with the Coachee needs to be much wider.

For example, starting with a typical objective such as ‘improve relationships with colleagues’, might be about some particular habits that needs to be explored in detail, or it may well lead to issues more to do with the Coachee having some personal values that are at stake. They may want to work in a completely different sort of job, or organisation culture, altogether. This can lead to even career, as well as life circumstances which are really behind the symptom that started the agenda.

There has to be the alertness and interest, or curiosity, with a real relaxation and comfort about whatever level the other person wants to get to; as well as the process they may want to go through in order to go where they may want. The coachee has to lead, and the Coach follow, in order to get the balance right.

3.3. The importance of curiosity at the start of coaching

One of the most noticeable ways I can sense, and see, my curiosity working is at the very start of coaching dialogue – the first moments of meeting.

I do mean moments, not minutes. A meeting begins when people first see each other – before words even start. Even more, a meeting may have actually started before being in each other’s physical presence; through information either party has had in relation to the other through a wide range of channels – planned or unplanned.

Typically I will have carried out some research about the person beforehand. Likewise the Coachee also has prior information that has started to form views about what to expect. It is important to be curious about this lest it may not be wholly appropriate.

However the start in the sense of physical presence, is where the Coachee is still forming questions about what to expect, as a result of first impressions, and all that can suggest. Being curious about this sort of often unspoken background is critical for how attention is given. 

I also find my curiosity can make an important difference to what appears to surprise Coachees through the important factor of sustaining attention over time, and depth, of the messages emerging, as well as evidencing just immediate attention, to the important messages someone is often offering. Coachees often will test as to whether the coach is really interested in them, or there is some superficiality that starts to emerge.

This is where I can sense that for myself, this is not an effort for me. My curiosity is substantial; and it is more a case of where I have to be careful to rein it in according to the other person’s own interest in sharing their experience of something of their world. I am always aware of all the other questions I would be curious to ask!


4. Conclusions and Next Steps

Considering curiosity in this way has left me with a view that curiosity is something like dark matter, as referred to in the study of the universe’s large scale structure. There is something involved that is still difficult to explain, and is, in that sense, relatively invisible, but very fundamentally important.

Likewise, it raises itself as a way of appreciating some deeper drives, rather than simply as part of a process. For me, also, Curiosity sits as a feature that is even a fundamental drive, and source of emotional stimulus in life. Something that drives everything about life, even. 

I can appreciate there may well still be concepts for understanding people that are yet to be appreciated, beyond such as intelligence, and personality etc. Likewise, the ease of learning about people’s experiences of life may be more easily understood by starting at the end of where there are problems, and focussing on the negative and bad experiences people are raising, which may become the only focus of giving attention to people.

Certainly curiosity is difficult to measure. It is also an unusual form of energy.

This short exploration has certainly registered the idea for me as something deserving further consideration about how to give what is involved better shape, as well as appreciation for its importance in practice, going forwards.

Again, for myself, curiosity is what practice is about. And is fundamental to what I believe Coaching also is about – ways to appreciate diversity of human experience.

I also find the open nature of how the good coach invites consideration of how practice works – for practitioners in this field of coaching to be important. There is a sense of being able to be genuinely independent in the perspective that practice can be considered.

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

References
1    https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins174001.html
2  "Old Man's Advice to Youth: 'Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'" LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p 64
3    https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/curious
4    Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious? New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 
5    https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/blogs/rsa-social-brain-the-power-of-curiosity.pdf
6     https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mindfulness
7    www.theijmc.com
8    http://positivepsychology.org.uk/what-is-positive-psychology/