We live in a time when our relationships and social fabric are being ripped apart: neighbors screaming at each other at protests, parents at war about banning books at their school, and young people yelling “OK boomer” to elders at work. In one town, a faith congregation plunges into turmoil after a member comes out as gay; in another, a church and mosque are burned down by arsonists. Hate has seemingly infected the very air we breathe—poisoned by the culture of divisiveness and polarization, of “us versus them.”

Group of four diverse friends sitting together talking

The result of all this isn’t just discord and deep sadness on a collective level—it affects us all on a deeply personal one, as well. You can’t breathe toxic air like this and not feel it in your own lungs and heart.

I wanted to feel less scared and angry all the time—so in 2019, I quit my job to spend 12 months on the road, living out of my car, showering at Planet Fitness, and meeting people I’d never normally encounter as a city-dwelling liberal Asian American spiritually queer professor and researcher from Hawai‘i (whew, that’s a mouthful). I had my sights set on Trump rallies, anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups, and churches. My goal was to understand how we could come back together as a country. How could we heal and forge deeper connections—rather than turn away from each other—to solve the big problems we collectively face?

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Through this journey, I realized that there is a path to us overcoming the disconnection and division so pervasive in our country: curiosity. I learned that curiosity is a practice, something we need to use every day, which inspired me to write my new book Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World. When we learn to go deep with curiosity, it can be the key to unlocking positive well-being and relationships in our lives.

An era of incuriosity

Based on my interviews, observations, and research, I’ve come to see that the common thread behind a lot of our disconnection, suffering, and polarization today is incuriosity: closing ourselves off from understanding the perspectives, stories, and humanity of others.

It has become rare to practice deep listening. Instead, we cancel people instead of calling them in (as Loretta Ross says) with accountability, meaning we are more likely to shame, judge, or dehumanize the people we disagree with. This can lead to us staying in our silos and refusing to connect with people who have different beliefs than us. That means we aren’t exposed to other ways of thinking or being, and we further codify our own biases. This can lead to us stereotyping others, as we miss out on the nuance and complexity that comes with the range of identities people hold.

This era of incuriosity is literally killing us. Long-term studies have found that less curiosity chops precious time off our lifespan, and contributes to loneliness and isolation.

If we want to strengthen our relationships rather than rupture them, we have to learn to ask more powerful questions rather than pass judgment. We need to become the kind of people who search for stories rather than positions, and values instead of views. We have to look inside of ourselves, getting curious about our own past and emotions, and not just rely on learning about the world outside of us.

In my work with the Greater Good Science Center, including co-creating the Bridging Differences Playbook, I’ve seen the power of curiosity again and again with all kinds of people: educators, therapists, journalists, community organizers, entrepreneurs, researchers, artists, students, and parents. I’ve spent the last five years rigorously researching how curiosity might help us to bridge social and political divides. In order to glean these benefits, we must be deliberate about how we use curiosity—and we must go much deeper than we customarily go.

Four steps to deeper curiosity

We tend to limit our understanding of curiosity by talking about it as a force for extracting information. Most people see it as a purely intellectual pursuit rather than one that can stir our hearts and spirits. We see how it helps children to develop language and communication skills or to remember what song was just playing on the radio.

This essay is adapted from Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World (Balance, 2023, 256 pages).

While this kind of curiosity is important, there is much more it can offer us. We need to embrace what I call “deep curiosity.” This is the kind of curiosity that invites us to use it as a force for meaningful connection and transformation. This is what strengthens our relationships to ourselves and each other, helping us to better navigate disagreements, revive decades-old marriages, or heal from past pain or trauma.

Curiosity begs us to ask questions that invite nuance and surprise. Rather than “What should I do to make money?,” we ask ourselves, “When I’m really flourishing, what does that look like?” Instead of “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?,” we ask others, “What values are important to you?” Rather than “Where did my ancestors come from?,” we ask, “How do I stay connected to them throughout my life?”

I’ve developed an overarching framework called DIVE to help us access our deep curiosity:

Detach: Let go of your ABCs (assumptions, biases, certainty). We attach to assumptions, biases, and certainty because that is how our brains naturally operate. These are automatic human tendencies that help us make sense of the world—and they also provide us with a feeling of security. Not to mention, being right and righteous brings social status and power in today’s twisted culture.

Detaching is a journey of lifelong unlearning—about yourself, about others, and about the world more broadly. But when we begin to let go of our ABCs, we change the way we perceive and interact with the people around us.

Tips to detach:

  • Back that assumption up. Validate whether your assumptions are true or not by engaging with those about whom you hold assumptions. Through conversation and connection, you’ll often find that the assumptions you’re holding on to are not accurate. For example, if you assume that a friend is late to a lunch date because they don’t respect you or your time, you can directly ask them about it. You might find that they’re struggling to cope with their family or work responsibilities, or view punctuality through a different cultural lens (island time is real!).
  • Fact-check your faulty “mind reader” abilities. Metaperceptions are the ways we think others think about us, and they are often negative and inaccurate—because we can’t read another person’s mind. Balance negative metaperceptions with positive ones, and if you’re feeling extra courageous, ask the other person if they’re true or not. If you think your mother-in-law views you as lazy because you’re struggling with unemployment, you can talk to her about it. Or just try to remember other ways she might see you, too, such as funny, engaging, or caring.
  • Try out the “garden salad” effect. Imagine another person’s vegetable preference (do they like broccoli or carrots more?). This helps you see that person as an individual, appreciating that they have unique tastes and preferences, rather than seeing them strictly in terms of their group identities. You can also find shared identities with people who are different from you—similar to how different vegetables can be put together in a salad.
  • Become an “admitter.” See admitting being wrong as an act of intellectual humility that leads to better communication, relationships, leadership, and life satisfaction. You can do this by saying, “Tell me more” when you’re told you’re wrong, prioritizing learning and growth, and reminding yourself that humans are wired for forgiveness.

Intend: Prepare your mindset and setting. Intention means to be deliberate in your practice of deep curiosity rather than haphazard. This is important, since deep curiosity isn’t something that’s given to us—it’s something we choose (or don’t) every day. When we are intentional about bringing more of it into our lives, it begins to infuse the decisions we make.

Part of this involves preparing the right mindset and setting when being curious. For your mindset, think in advance about the questions you’d ask in a conversation or visualize how you’d show up to be as open-hearted as possible if you expect conflict. Picking a setting that encourages curiosity and connection might look like a private space where both people feel safe to express themselves fully, and where there’s little to no distractions so it encourages deep listening.

This kind of preparation can help soothe your nerves and fears before entering a situation that might push your emotional boundaries (in a good way)—say, on a first date, during a difficult conversation at work, or while engaging with someone across the political aisle. Not only will this ease your own personal suffering beforehand, but it will also set you up for a curious encounter that is likely to be far more successful.

Value: See the dignity of every person, including yourself. To value is to see the inherent and ineffable dignity of all people, including yourself. It is to acknowledge the humanity of every single person, no matter what they’ve done or how you feel about them. Full stop and no exceptions. Until we honor the inherent worth of others, and work to see them as complex beings with lives, families, joys, struggles, jobs, personalities, likes, and dislikes, we can’t access deep curiosity.

Psychologists Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske found that we are less likely to consider the emotions of those we devalue. In one study, they asked participants to describe a day in the life of three people: a person who is homeless, a firefighter, and a college student. In their descriptions, participants were less likely to consider the emotional state of the person who was homeless (a group that is often dehumanized) than that of the firefighter or college student.

In contrast, when you value someone, you choose a path of connection rather than distance, understanding rather than judgment, and love rather than incuriosity. For example, you value yourself by exploring how you felt when a friend didn’t extend you an invitation, and sharing your concerns with them. You value your friend by not calling them a bitch and respecting them enough to offer them a chance to respond to your hurt feelings.

While reading this, you’re probably nodding along in total agreement. We like to think that we already see people fully, as complex human beings. But when it comes to that asshole who cut you off on the freeway, that coworker who is a walking microaggression, or being hard on ourselves when we mess up with parenting or loving our spouse, it’s much harder to practice valuing others and ourselves.

Embrace: Welcome the hard times in your life. Embrace is a reminder for us to move toward the things we fear, which usually happens at a moment of change, such as a career shift, a new home, expanding the family, or navigating loss. Instead of trying to push away discomfort, fear, anxiety, or pain, we can get curious about where they’re coming from and what they have to teach us.

You can take the moments in your life, which are rife with uncomfortable feelings, and transform them into something useful. We don’t do this by suppressing negative emotions or pretending that everything is “just fine, thank you very much!” We do this by embracing all of it—the good and the bad—and leaving room for the possibility of change to follow. When we experience grief, for instance, we might reflect on that person’s legacy and the precious memories we’ve shared with them. But we also create the space to honor the anger and sadness we feel that this person is no longer with us, and get curious about where in our body those emotions are coming up for us (such as our gut, throat, or chest).

It’s important to remember that deep curiosity is a practice, meaning we must use it in small and big ways every day to gain mastery in it. As you do, you’ll find it strengthens your relationships to yourself and others so you can feel happier and more connected to the world around you, in addition to the world inside of you. Deep curiosity is a life-changing gift, something you can offer to your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and strangers. It’s a generous force, which means it’s supposed to be shared.

Not only do we all have this superpower, but we all stand to benefit from it. This is the only way we will dance our way out of this era of division and fear.

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