How can you listen like you mean it? The key is to adapt the listening mode to what’s needed in a given conversation. Dr. Diane Hamilton’s guest today is Ximena Vengoechea, the author of Listen Like You Mean It. Ximena talks with Dr. Diane about how there are 11 default listening modes. Each has its virtues and pitfalls. You need to practice the art of identifying which listening mode is most appropriate for each conversation. In doing so, you’ll deeply and truly connect with the other person. Tune in to listen like you mean it!
I’m so glad you joined us because we have Ximena Vengoechea here. She is an experienced researcher, people leader, writer, illustrator, you name it. She’s the author of Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. That’s going to be an essential guide to becoming a better listener to strengthen your relationships at work and home so I’m looking forward to having her on the show.
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Listen Like You Mean It: Heartfelt Connections With Ximena Vengoechea
I am here with Ximena Vengoechea, she is an experienced researcher, people leader, writer, illustrator and author of Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. I’m so glad to have you here.
Thank you so much for having me.
You are welcome. I was looking forward to this. I know you’ve gotten a lot of tension. I noticed you even had a review by Adam Grant, the author of Think Again, Originals and the host of The TED Podcast Work Life. It said your book was full of revealing instantly applicable ideas for leveraging your strengths and overcoming your weaknesses. Listening is such a hot and important topic. It ties into empathy and curiosity, all the things I love to research. Before we get into your book, I want to get a background on you. You are a frequent contributor to Fast Company News and so many other publications. A lot of people want to know how you reach this level of success.
I ask myself the same thing often. In terms of my writing, I have always been interested in writing. I have always done writing on the side. I have had this role in user experience research in Silicon Valley, which is all about understanding people, their motivations and their needs, to help companies, build better products that meet those needs. A parallel interest of mine has always been understanding people in the context of literature, character and personality. I studied literature and made my way into this user research role and was delighted when I saw that overlap. Both of these things are about understanding people and I kept cultivating that writing on the side and sometimes burning the midnight oil to make both of those things work.
We have plenty to talk about because first of all, I wrote a book on personalities. I love personality assessing and behavioral expertise is what companies need more of. I also teach a lot of marketing, brand publishing and some of that and what you talk about is so important. In what you had sent me, you are interested in how people use products, why and so am I. I’m fascinated by marketing and building the right message. In fact, one of the classes I’m teaching was an entrepreneurship course and they are in the week where they have to figure out their product and consider their customer. What products have you looked at or studied that you find fascinating in how they reach customers with their messages? Is there some particular one that stands out to you?
My research has been directly tied to work at Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest in particular. I have definitely done some work there in terms of how they are reaching customers. Personally, as someone who is exposed to a bunch of different brands in the world, I have been interested in Airbnb and their reinvention over time from this travel platform to an experience platform to get to know locals. They pivoted multiple times and to me, it has been interesting testing to see how their brand has shifted and particularly, in light of the pandemic. We have seen a lot of changes to the travel industry a large so that’s one that I’m keeping track of.
You write about the importance of listening and that comes up in so many of the courses I teach and in the talks that I give because I deal a lot with empathy. To build empathy, you’ve got to ask questions. You have to be curious enough to ask those questions. Everything keeps coming back to curiosity but the problem is, if you are asking the questions but not listening to the answers, you can’t build that rapport. Why do you think we have such a problem with listening?
Oftentimes, we are not intentional about it. We think of listening as something that you show up and it happens that you don’t have to think much about it. What happens when we take that approach of, “I’m going to see what happens here,” is that we tend to focus on the surface level. We hear the literal words that are being said. We catch enough meaning to be polite, nod, smile and not lose our job. We are listening to a degree but we are listening at the surface and we are missing the subtext. We are missing, what is not being said, what is being said without being explicitly communicated, what is the feeling behind what’s being said and the emotion.
That’s a different listening that does require a sense of intentionality, awareness, going into a conversation and ignoring it so you can catch yourself when you do start to do things where we asked a question and our mind is already racing on maybe what we think the right answer is. We assume the person is going to take the conversation or we want them to take the conversation. That winding up is common and it’s important to be aware of it when it’s happening and to notice that so we can return to the present and do the work of listening.
As you are saying that that is so interesting to me because I have had a lot of people who were either in the show where they will ask me questions down a list like when they are interviewing me. No matter what my response is, they will say, “Uh-huh,” and they go to the next question. Do you know what I mean?
I’m familiar with that interviewing style.
It’s like, “Did you care at all about what I just said?” When people sign up for the show, you might have noticed, I asked them to send some questions if they would like me to ask but I never read questions. I like to have them list questions so I could see the kinds of things they like to be asked. If you are interviewing somebody in this setting, I like it to be conversational. I’m curiously asking people because I want to know about them and have a conversation that would sometimes go down these weird rabbit holes.
To me, that is so much more interesting than asking you a question for the sake of filling time on the air. It comes to the point of asking questions to deepen a conversation and for me, when I first started doing this show, I would write down a bunch of questions I thought I wanted to ask. Fifteen hundred or whatever people later, I don’t write down any questions other than I might have the ones that they suggested. I have them in front of me in a way. I often don’t even look at them because the conversation grows naturally. How do you know the right questions to deepen that conversation?
What you are describing is a natural trajectory of when you start out, maybe over-prepared where you are actively thinking about those questions to when you let the conversation breathe and maybe relieve some of that pressure and listen so you can respond in real-time, which is great. In terms of how you get to that point, in addition to doing all of those interviews, asking the right question is important. There are certain questions that we ask and we are not aware that our questions are shutting the conversation down. These questions are questions that tend to set the other person up to respond with a yes, no or some other one-word response.
They are close-ended questions and those tend to start with are, is or do. It’s like, “Are you nervous about tomorrow’s presentation? Are you mad at me? Do you XYZ?” It’s that kind of thing. We don’t think that we are influencing the other person in their response when we ask those questions but we are because we are suggesting that there is a response that they should have, “Are you mad at me?” Yes, no. Those are the options, “Do you feel nervous about tomorrow’s presentation?” “I guess I should feel nervous.” Maybe the person wasn’t nervous. A better way of approaching these kinds of questions is to ask more open-ended questions that start with how or what, which gives the other person the space to take the conversation wherever they need it to go.Understanding people’s motivations and needs helps companies build better products. Click To Tweet
That is often going to be much more interesting and insightful because you are going to learn something in the process. That means saying something like, “How do you feel about tomorrow’s event?” “What do you feel about that?” We are letting people have that space. When they take that space, we often go to interesting places. Some people think, “If I give someone all that space, how do I ‘control the conversation’ or how do I wrangle it back in and make sure it doesn’t go all over the place?”
For that, you are looking for those spots where there’s some heat to the conversation where you can feel you are getting somewhere and you can start asking small questions when you find that heat to encourage the conversation in that direction. That can sound like, “Say more about that. Tell me more. What else?” One that I like to say is, “Because,” and you have that ellipsis, the other person will fill it in and you will learn something interesting by prompting them in that way.
I noticed that you did not include questions on the thing that I saw and maybe it got cut off when it was delivered to me. What questions do you like to be asked, especially about your book that you think is important to open up for everybody reading? What can they get from your book?
One of the things that I like to talk about from the book is this idea of default listening mode. Going back to what I was mentioning earlier, how we are not always thinking about how we listen so we step into the conversation without thinking about it. One of the things that we are always bringing into a conversation is what I call a Default Listening Mode. This is a way of listening. It’s a filter. It’s a way you hear things and it’s informed by our personality or early relationships, experiences, cultural expectations as well but it affects how we hear things. There’s no good or bad mode. In the book, I outlined eleven. They all have their virtues and their pitfalls. The real key is to be able to adapt the mode to what’s needed in a given conversation.
For example, one of the most is the problem-solving listening mode. If you have a problem-solving listening mode, you tend to hear things through the lens of a problem to be solved. Someone might be sharing that they’ve got a lot on their plate or they are feeling overwhelmed, you might hear that and think, “What can I do or what can they do? How do we help them move forward?” That can be helpful when there truly is a problem that needs solving or when the person is in search of advice, wants your advice in particular or needs to generate ideas.
It can be unwelcoming if the person is not at all seeking advice. If they feel equipped to handle that overwhelm or if they are sharing that they are overwhelmed with you because they want to be seen and they want, you to see that they are making an effort but they don’t need that advice from you. Getting advice in that situation could feel like they are being micromanaged or you don’t believe in them. That’s one example of a listening mode.
I will share one other example, which is the identifier. The identifier is listening and scanning for, “How do I relate to what’s being said?” If someone says, “I’m having a tough time with my spouse. We are under a lot of stress and the relationship is in a tough place.” The identifier might hear that and think, “When have I had a similar experience? That sounds like this issue I had with a roommate once. Let me share that story.” It’s that instinct to say, “Me too or that’s how when I dealt with XYZ.” It can be lovely if what the person is looking for is an affirmation to know that you are not alone in this experience. However, it can be somewhat alienating if that’s not what they are looking for because we have inadvertently made the conversation about us. It’s like, “Let me tell you my version of it.”
They top you.
It’s also hard to find the right situation to relate to like someone talking about their marriage and this example, bringing up a roommate that might feel like, “Those are not the same relationships.” It’s pretty hard to do it well but it can be done well. The point is we are bringing these modes into the conversation and we are often unaware of them. It affects how we listen, what we hear and how we respond. One of the most important things is to begin to recognize what is my mode? What am I bringing into the conversation? Is it what’s needed or might something else be needed here?
Sometimes people tell you that something else might be needed there. I remember having a conversation with one of my daughters who was telling me some health issues she was having. I was trying to think of advice. I was like, “Maybe you try this or you can try that.” She told me that she didn’t want to hear that.
All she wanted was sympathy to some extent at that point because she was like, “Everybody has offered me all these suggestions. None of that stuff works. I don’t want to hear suggestions now.” For me, when it was me, I would have wanted somebody to tell me how to fix it. We put ourselves in our mode of what we would want. Sometimes to build that empathy, we have to know what they would want. How do we know that that’s what they want unless they tell us like that?
If they tell you, “That’s wonderful,” that shows that there’s trust in the relationship where someone can say, “Let me correct you. What I need here is this.” Sometimes people can’t even start the conversation with that but often they don’t. Someone rarely says, “Before we get started, what I need from us to feel validated.” That’s very rare in part because of levels of trust but also because we don’t always know what we need. Sometimes it’s through conversation that we find out what we need.
Part of it is giving, that person the space to share their experience and also, it’s totally fair to ask and to say, “My instinct is to offer you some advice. Is that what you are looking for? Would that be helpful? I have a similar experience that can be useful. Would it help to hear that? Would that be welcome?” If you are not even sure where to start, you can ask, “Would you like me to listen or respond?” Sometimes, all the other person needs are for you to give them that space and to listen to them and bear witness to what they are saying.
Sometimes you have to know when to shut up. In your book, I noticed you discuss pausing at the right time to encourage vulnerability. I’m curious what you mean by that. That’s a different shutting up or pausing. Why would we want to encourage vulnerability?
If you have ever been in a conversation where you can sense that the person has more to say or that they are working their way towards sharing something, sometimes our instinct is to dive in to offer that advice, speed things along or take things where we think it needs to go. There’s value in being able to sit tight a little bit and set that ego aside that says, “I have an answer here,” and let the other person make their way there on their own time.
It’s not using silence in a conversation and allowing the conversation to breathe in that way. It’s not meant to be manipulative. It’s not an information extraction technique so much as an opportunity. You are allowing someone to work their way toward whatever they seem to have in their mind. You won’t always need to do that but sometimes you can sense, “We are getting there,” or there’s a little bit of something. There’s more to what the person wants to share. In that case, giving that silence. Let them finish the thought. That’s the act of generosity. You have the floor to fully process if you need it.
We are getting there and sometimes you are not getting there. The conversation has gone off the rails. How do you deal with that?
It does happen. Sometimes we get stuck. This is where it’s useful to be able to gracefully extricate yourself from a conversation if that’s what’s needed or at least put a pin in the conversation. If someone is stuck on a challenge and let’s say you guys have talked through multiple solutions and you are not getting anywhere, maybe the person isn’t ready to take that advice. Maybe they still need to work through something. You are starting to be a little bit drained, it’s okay to say, “It sounds you are still working on this, maybe we should take a break or I can see that this is still weighing on you, maybe we should look elsewhere for the next step.”We need to listen with a sense of intentionality and awareness. Click To Tweet
That elsewhere could be directing them to another person to a book or some other resource but it’s absolutely okay to be able to acknowledge, “We are stuck,” on some level. Maybe we need to pause or change tactics and particularly if it’s a conversation that is draining you in some way, where you feel, “I no longer have the ability to help this person. I’m emotionally spent and I’m not able to offer the empathy that they deserve now.”
If there’s sufficient trust and relationship, you can also share a version of that and say, “I’m not being helpful anymore or I’m realizing I’m having an emotional response to this. I need to take a beat. Would that be okay?” Most people will say, “Yes, sure and you can come back to it if and when it makes sense to you.”
As you are saying that, it brought to mind, people that I have known who called me to tell me the latest problem they are having at work. They want somebody who has been in their situation who could empathize. You don’t get a chance to speak at all. You might get 30 minutes and you finally try to get something in there. How do you handle that situation when you are listening but maybe there’s no communication?
I call this group Takers so they take more in conversation than they give back. We are not able to receive much because we are offering. It’s important to recognize when that’s happening. Sometimes this happens as a one-off. A friend is having a tough day and they need to vent. We are there for them. We know that they will get us next time. It’s like, “I will do this round and you get the next round.” If this is something that is a pattern with a particular person where you feel the dynamic in place is such that I am basically always receiving their emotions. I’m not able to step into the conversation and have my needs supported, then there are a few things that you can do.
One is, consider maybe if this is a relationship that makes sense to continue to invest in, whether it’s one to slowly distance yourself from, depending on the severity of it or talking to the person directly about it. Sometimes, though, this is someone who, for whatever reason, they are a co-worker, in-law or someone who we have to keep happy in our lives and we can’t say, “I don’t have time for this.” That’s where it’s useful to learn how to basically say, “No,” within a conversation by exiting from the conversation. I have had many people ask how I get other people to listen.
The best way to do that is by modeling the behavior and bringing forward the listening that you want to see in a conversation. However, some people in this category don’t respond to that. This is where being able to do a couple of things. You can Timebox a conversation so if this is a repeat offender, you know what to expect. You can tell them up front, “I only have twenty minutes to chat but I’m all yours until then.” You are telling them and you are setting a boundary for yourself, too. It’s like, “This is the boundary. We have twenty minutes.” You can pick a place to have a conversation where there’s time constraints built-in.
Instead of catching up at the wine bar, where you can linger for hours, you go to a busy restaurant where the tables are going to turn over quicker. You can architect certain environmental cues in there as well and you can also learn to say, “I’ve got a run now or this is great. I’m so glad to have a chance to catch up with you. I need to get going.” You can share why or not, you don’t have to give an excuse. It’s a matter of saying, “I have to run.” You can do it in a way that shows respect for the other person, too. Say, “I want to be mindful of your time, I have taken up a lot of your time. I better get going now.” You can shift your approach depending on the relationship.
I have a good relationship with a girl I used to work with. Sometimes she will tell me long stories and she will go, “I know I’m going to go talk forever,” or she will say something. She will preface it to give me the out if I don’t want to hear it. If I am busy, I will say, “You’ve got 30 minutes.” I will tell her how much time I have. I truly enjoy listening to what she has to say but sometimes she will want to talk longer and I make sure she knows I can’t. I have met other people, where it doesn’t matter what you say. Sometimes you can’t get anything in and it’s a tough situation sometimes.
Sometimes you have to interrupt and interrupting is something that I usually don’t recommend because you lose out on what the other person has to say. When you are in the presence of someone who is monologuing, who is not giving you any airspace and airtime, you can say that and acknowledging that you are interrupting is the best way. “I’m so sorry to interrupt. I really have to get going now.” It’s the elephant in the room. Say it and move on. That can be helpful, too.
There’s a part of me that with people like that, I want to help them to learn that they are doing that but I don’t want to upset them so I don’t bring it up. Is it ever right to tell them that they need to work on that?
My book makes a great gift. To have that in your life and to get that built is one thing to consider. It can be appropriate to have that conversation. It depends on the level of trust and vulnerability that’s in the relationship. “Can the relationship handle it?” Is one question or, “Is this person going to get defensive and not going to be able to hear me anyway? Does this person have the ability to change?” In general, we all can change but for some people, this is so hardwired. This is such a deeply ingrained habit that you might decide that having a conversation about it might not be the most productive thing to do.
Often, I think about parenting or being a manager in this context, where you want your direct report or your child to do something so you tell them what to do or how to do it and it doesn’t matter. They have to learn and get there on their own. You can coach them and guide them but often, telling them doesn’t help. Taking those things into account, “Can this relationship withstand this conversation? Is it going to be productive or not?” That’s going to depend on the person.
The people I have seen who do that don’t do it at work. They do it more at home. They get the difference of how to communicate and stuff, go back and forth, and all that in the work setting. When they are out of work and talking to a friend in that setting, that’s where I see that they do more of that. Sometimes those would be the people who would get it. If they do it at work, at home, maybe not. This is such a fascinating topic and I was so glad that you were coming on to discuss this because so many people can use help with this. I know I can and anything we could do to become better listeners is critical. If people wanted to get your book and find out more, how would they do that?
The book is available on all the major retailers but to find out more about me, the book, my newsletter, social media, all of that, the best place is my website. That’s the main hub. That’s XimenaVengoechea.com
This was so much fun. Thank you. This is an important book and I enjoyed having you on the show.
Thank you so much. This is great.
You are welcome.
This show is going to be a little bit different and I’m excited about it because I’m going to be talking about curiosity. I talk on a lot of other people’s shows about what I work on but I want to talk to you about the value of building curiosity within your organization. I’m my guest now. In addition to hosting this show, I am also the Creator of The Curiosity Code Index. I wrote the book Cracking the Curiosity Code. I give a lot of presentations where I talk about the importance of improving curiosity and getting out of the status quo thinking it sometimes helps if I share a story that I think you might find fascinating.
A lot of organizations are held back by a culture that doesn’t embrace curiosity. They just go along with the way things have always been. I like to talk about an experiment that I shared on stage about hidden camera experiments where they looked at how quickly people go along with the group. This woman went into a doctor’s office thinking she’s getting an eye exam but not known to her, everybody in the waiting room wasn’t patients, they were actors.
Every often an experiment that was going on and where they would have a bell ring. Every time that bell would ring, all the actors around her, which she thought were patients would stand up and sit down with no explanation. After three times hearing the bell ring and without knowing why she was doing it, the woman stood up and sat down conforming with the group. They thought, “This is interesting, she’s going along with what everybody else is doing. Let’s see what happens if we take everybody out of the room.” They call everybody back as if they were patients, one at a time and eventually, she’s alone in the room and the bell rings and what she does? She stood up, sat down and she doesn’t know why she’s doing it. She’s just going along with what everybody else has done.
They thought, “This is fascinating. Let’s add some people to the room who are patients, see how she responds to the bell ringing and how they respond.” The bell goes off, she stands up and sits down. The gentleman next to her looks at her and says, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Everybody else was doing it. I thought I was supposed to.” The next time the bell rings, what do you think he does? He gets up and sits down with her. Slowly but surely, what was a random rule for one woman, is now the social rule for everybody in that waiting room.
That’s an internalized behavior that we call social learning. We see what other people do and we think, “That’s what I want to do because everybody else is doing it,” and we reward ourselves because we don’t want to be excluded. It’s just a part of how conformity can be comfortable but going along with it, you get bad habits, you stunt growth, you get the status quo thinking and that can be the downfall of organizations. When we do things just because they have always been done in a certain way, we don’t progress and don’t look for other ways to find solutions. I want to go beyond that. I want to know why we are doing things. Why is it important? What are we trying to accomplish?
That’s what I talk to companies about because they need to look at how and where are they modeling thought and fostering curiosity. What action plans do they have in place to avoid status-quo thinking? Do they have all the answers? How can they take what they learn from different events and utilize that to make some changes? It’s important because curiosity has been the foundation behind the Model T, the self-driving car.
We know that leaders believe they encouraged curiosity and exploration but I have had Francesca Gino on the show. She has done a lot of great research in this area. We know that most of the employees don’t feel rewarded for it if they explore their curiosity. If we want organizations to generate innovative ideas, we have to help them through leaders developing that desire to explore.
My job is to be curious. I ask questions and get information for a living and I do that through the show, teaching, speaking and everything I do. It’s something I want to share with other people because it’s a huge part of what makes companies successful. I look at curiosity as the spark that ignites the process that everybody is trying to achieve.
Think of it as baking a cake. If your goal is to bake a cake, you’ve got all these ingredients. You have eggs, milk and flour, whatever it is you take to bake the cake. You mix it, you put it in the pan and you put it in the oven. What happens? If you didn’t turn on the oven, you get goo. Nothing happens. That’s a huge problem that organizations are trying to get.Sometimes, all the other person needs is for you to listen to them. Click To Tweet
Instead of cake, they are trying to get productivity. We are trying to make money. They know the ingredients. They know they want motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication, all the soft skills and all that stuff. They are mixing those ingredients and what they are not doing is turning on the oven. The oven, the spark, is curiosity. If you don’t turn on the oven, no one gets cake. That’s what I’m trying to talk to companies about.
We know that kids are naturally curious. I love a picture from the San Francisco Museum of Art from Life Magazine in 1963. They have these two little girls who are adorable looking through this grate on the wall that they can see behind the air conditioning vent kind of thing. They are supposed to be looking at all the artwork on the walls, of course, because it’s the San Francisco Museum of Art but what do the kids do? They want to see what’s behind the vent. We are all that way.
Three-year-olds ask their parents about 100 questions a day but at that age, you are just curious. You want to find out how everything works. There’s some time that we eventually lose some of that and think about it, when did you stop wanting to look behind the vent? Did somebody say, “Stop that, get up? You are getting dirty, don’t look behind there.” We get that. That’s what our parents do. You have to behave but we have seen a big decline in curiosity and creativity.
There are some great TED Talks about the creativity aspect, which ties in very similarly to curiosity and what we see. It peaks around age five and then it takes as soon as you go through school and about the age of 18 through 31 even, we are seeing very low levels. Sir Ken Robinson has a great talk about how we educate people out of our creativity and competencies.
George Land also has a great talk about his work with NAS. He looked at kids and he followed them at age five. He found that 98% of children were creative geniuses and then by the time they were 31, only 2% were and it was a huge difference. George Land says that we have convergent and divergent thinking and he talks about it in terms of, we put on the gas and try to come up with all these great ideas but at the same time we over criticize them and we put on the brake. Anybody who drives a car knows you put the brake at the same time you put on the gas, you don’t go very far.
That’s what’s happening to our curiosity and creativity. I thought, “This is interesting because curiosity can translate into serious business results and CEOs get that.” A lot of them are not investing in the culture of curiosity but some of them are doing some amazing things. I want to talk about what the cost is of lost curiosity. There are many aspects of what costs companies. We know that they are losing $16.8 billion due to emotional intelligence if you ask the Consortium for EI or if you look at Gallup’s numbers, they are losing $500 billion a year due to poor engagement.
I have seen everything. By communication, Holmes has it at $37 billion and I have seen much higher. It just depends where you look but we are talking tens to hundreds of billions for each of these issues. Emotional intelligence, communication and engagement. It’s a huge problem out there. Companies know that they are losing money but they don’t recognize the value sometimes of curiosity. When we talk about curiosity, there’s a big innovation factor because we want to be more innovative but we are worried about job loss and jobs being automated but we know that we are not innovative.
The majority of the Fortune 500 companies from 1995 are gone and no one wants to be Kodak and nobody wants to be a Blockbuster. We know that Netflix ate Blockbuster’s lunch. The reason those companies are not here is that they looked at things from the status quo way that they have always done things. They didn’t want to cannibalize their product or whatever that they had and the success they had. If you do that, the world keeps moving and you get stuck. That’s a huge problem.
It was interesting to me to study curiosity. There are a lot of research on curiosity but there’s not the great statistics I would like to see. There’s a State of Curiosity Report that Merck did in 2018 and it showed that curiosity was higher in larger companies than smaller ones. It was 37% versus 20% and then Millennials were more curious than Gen Z and Boomers. The US had a higher level of curiosity compared to China but maybe they weren’t as high as Germany. That’s just one report. I would like to see a lot more research done. It’s fun to look at what experts have shared regarding the value of curiosity.
Francesca Gino did a great job with the HBR article she wrote. I loved having her on the show. I hope you check out that show because it’s amazing. In that report, she talked about leaders who recognize curiosity is important and think that they are encouraging it. We found that most of the employees don’t believe that, only 24% feel like they are curious about their jobs and 70% said they face barriers to staying curious and asking questions. She has done some great research. If you get a chance, I would recommend listening to that show and also check out that HBR article.
I have had Daniel Goleman on the show, he was incredible. He talked about how emotional intelligence ties in. He was cute because he said he could have seen why I developed a measure of curiosity because I’m curious. He was talking about an article in HBR as well by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, saying that curiosity is one of the most important competencies in the future.
That’s a huge plug for curiosity coming from Daniel Goleman. He was talking about how younger generations question organizational missions more than older generations. We’ve got into a great discussion about that. I hope you take some time to read that blog. Another great episode on the show was with Amy Edmondson who has an incredible TED Talk.
She gets into curiosity and how it ties into collaboration. She does a TED Talk about teams and teaming. She gets into how the Chilean miner disaster was able to be resolved and a lot of it was because of curiosity. She says, “You’ve got to look at what you are trying to get done, your goal. What’s in your way, your concerns, worries, barriers and stuff like that. What resources, talents, skills, and experience do you bring?” She talks about how they did all that to get those Chilean miners out from under that rock. It is worth watching her TED Talk. All of them have TED Talks that are amazing.
A great guest as well on the show was Doug Conant, who is the guy who turned around Campbell’s Soup. He did that by asking questions. He asked employees what motivated them and then he looked at how to build engagement by writing 10 to 20 personal notes six days a week. He counted 30,000 plus, which is huge. When he took over in 2002, they had 12% engagement and by 2009, they were up to 68%. He did some amazing things by asking questions, writing comments and giving input. All that stuff comes out of curiosity.
Another great guest of the show was Zander Lurie, who’s the CEO of SurveyMonkey and they are so much into curiosity. They’ve got permission to change their street address to One Curiosity Way, I love that. I was asking him some of the things that they do because they have a culture of curiosity there and they asked, “How can we make our products more productive for our customers? How can we create an environment where people do their best work?” He says, “They do skip-level meetings so that he can find out what works and what doesn’t.”
Those are some examples of people who were on the show and other examples are fascinating. Some companies, Monopoly, Ben & Jerry’s, VanMoof bicycles, some of those, I have looked at some of them to see how they used curiosity to go a step further. Monopoly did some research because they always come out with the dog’s version or cat’s version and they didn’t want to come out with just another version.
They decided to come out with some research to find out what people did with Monopoly and what they can learn about it. They found out that a lot of people cheat and over half the people cheat when they play Monopoly. They came out with the Cheater’s Edition and that was their second-biggest release since the initial release of Monopoly. It was a cool thing.
Ben & Jerry’s got some interesting information, what they do in terms of not getting into status-quo thinking, they don’t keep flavors around forever. They research to find out what’s working. They ask questions like, “What’s a good flavor? What’s no longer a good flavor?” Instead of freaking out that their flavors are no longer successful, they celebrate them and give them a burial. I love that. They even have a headstone or whatever on their website and they show, “This flavor was live from this year to this year,” and they celebrate their success and then they move on.
A story I think is interesting is VanMoof. They make these bikes and they would send them in packages in the mail, through UPS or whatever they would send. A lot of them were ending up broken and they kept trying to fix these bikes and this issue with the packaging. They didn’t want to spend a lot more money because if you make the package twice the size, you get a lot more expenses and they are trying to figure out how to do this to make their bikes not break and yet not go over on the spending.
What they have looked at was the type of box they were using. They noticed it was very similar to a flat-screen television box and they looked into how many flat screens broke and they weren’t breaking. The only real difference was the flat screens had a picture of a flat-screen on the box. They thought, “Let’s draw a picture of a flat-screen, a little bit of extra ink and see what happens.” It was a dramatic difference in the number of damaged bicycles. Just thinking outside the box.
Sometimes it’s just asking questions and Disney did a lot of that. They did some great questioning to find out what was happening with their turnover. The laundry division of Disney, as glamorous as it sounds, is not. They were losing a lot of people that didn’t love working there and they couldn’t figure out why.
They put out a questionnaire to their employees and said, “How can we make your job better?” They didn’t expect to get things back that they could do anything about but they did. They’ve got back great things. They’ve got back things like, “Put an air vent over my workspace or make my table adjustable when I’m folding things that work for my height.” Those are things like, “We can fix that,” and they did.
Going to the horse’s mouth, the employee and say, “How can we make this better?” was huge for them. Sometimes it’s not just an employee, sometimes it’s leaders. In the book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, I gave a story about Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. They were having a lot of patients that were dying when they were being transferred from one unit to the other.
Some physicians were watching a Formula 1 racecar event one night and were impressed by how quickly that Formula 1 pit crew would take the car apart and put it back together in seven seconds. They are looking at this going, “Look at that, they did that with no problems and we can’t transfer people from here to here.” They thought, “Why don’t we have these guys come in, this Ferrari team, and they can show us any improvements that we could make.” They did get some great ideas, which reduced their errors by more than 50%.
We think inside of our cubicle and our silos but sometimes we need to think outside of even our industry because that can be important. Some of the greatest ideas are from that. I gave you some examples but we know we came up with Velcro from a Swiss engineer hunting with his dog who came back with burrs in his fur and he’s like, “What are these things? Why are they sticking?”
What he did was he stuck it under the light to look at it and he saw the way it hooked together and he thought, “Why don’t we try this?” In 1998, they made something like $93 million in Velcro and it was sold in 40 countries. It did amazingly well. You have to build a culture of learning and to do that. It’s important to look at some companies that do a great job of it.
I know a top company I work with that does that is Novartis. Novartis does a great job because they have curiosity as part of their core cultural value. They encourage employees to spend 100 hours a year on employer-paid education to broaden their interests. They do everything from paying for them to watch videos, to having them perform in mini TED events, having employees be the actual speakers, things like that. It’s cool how much they do this. They have the whole month of September as their curiosity month and I’m one of the speakers for them. I know how much time and effort they put into this.
If you look at how much everybody talks about how they liked working at the company, 90% of employees surveyed approved of the CEO. Think of how often you see that. That’s a huge thing. I know they’re doing some ongoing research with curiosity with me. I’m excited about that. One of their employees is writing her Doctoral dissertation and we are looking at the curiosity, how it compares to if you intervene and give them some information about things that are holding them back. I’m anxious to share that information when it comes out because I did a lot of research for my talks and my book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, and I looked at so much that’s out there.
We know that there are some great TED Talks from Daniel Pink, he wrote Drive, a great book. Simon Sinek’s, Find Your Why and all the stuff that he’s talking about. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, all those are huge. I started to look at what this curiosity thing is. The Max Planck Institute coined the term the curiosity gene because it’s in people and animals. It creates dopamine, it makes us feel good. If you don’t have curiosity, if you are a bird, you are just flying around a bush and you run out of berries, you are going to die if you don’t have the curiosity to go look at another bush.
As I was researching for the book, I wanted to write about curiosity but I’m like, “Where is the assessment that tells you what stops it?” I’m like, “Wait a minute, there isn’t one.” That surprised me because the assessments all told you if you were curious or not. That’s all well and good because you do want to know if somebody is highly curious or not. The big five factors will tell you if you are open to experience and things like that but I want to know what stops it. Nobody had studied that so I did. I want to know what holds us back and I found out what it is. It is FATE and it stands for Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment.
I want to talk about these separately because fear is about failure, fear of embarrassment, loss of control. Nobody wants to feel like they said something stupid in a meeting. We all want to feel like we are all prepared so we are all in the meeting and we are thinking, “I want to ask that but I don’t want to look dumb.” You lean to Joe next to you and go, “Joe, why don’t you ask?” It’s because Joe should look dumb. You don’t want to look dumb. That’s a huge problem in companies because you get a lot of yes men and yes women because nobody wants to shake up things or look like they are trying to confront their leaders. Leaders who haven’t modeled the value of curiosity will come across that way.
I have had leaders look at me and say things. I had one guy, he asked me to do something and I said, “I would be happy to do it. I have never had to, how do I do that?” He looked at me with disgust and said, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” What does that make you feel? First of all, it tells you you’re an idiot, I guess. It tells you that you should know this. You should lie and pretend you know things. I don’t know.
We get a lot of leaders who will say don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions. That sounded good at the beginning because it sounded like we were going to get rid of these whiners and complainers that we didn’t have any ideas but a lot of people don’t know how to solve the problem. If we say that, then we are saying we don’t want to know about problems. That’s a huge issue. The assumptions that we make, that’s that voice in our head that tells us, “We are not going to be interested or apathetic, it’s unnecessary. Last time I did that they gave me more work,” or whatever it is.
We all have that voice. It talks us out of stuff. Sometimes I will hold up a bottle of water in a talk that I’m giving and ask, “How heavy is this?” They will say, “6 or 8 ounces,” or whatever. I will say, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is how long I hold it because if I hold it for a minute it doesn’t bother me. My arm is fine. I will hold it for an hour, I start to get tired. My arm gets tired. After a day, my arm feels paralyzed.” That’s how our assumptions are. The voice in our head. It’s a fleeting thought, no big deal. We get past it.
After an hour, we might hold on to a little more. After a day it starts to stay with us. We have to recognize that we might be telling ourselves all these things we could maybe be interested in or maybe somebody would help us learn but we talk ourselves out of them. Assumptions are a big thing. What I found interesting was technology was also a big factor. Curiosity is impacted by the over and underutilization of technology. It can either do it for you, you are not trained in it or you are overwhelmed by it. Some people had great experiences in their childhood where they had a lot of foundational learning and technology.
Steve Wozniak is one. I love his book, iWoz. In one of his books, he talks about his dad telling him how to connect gadgets. He would come back with all these wires, get things from work, show him how the electronics should be connected, why this wire was necessary and how it brought electricity. A lot of us don’t have that experience. A lot of us might be the greatest mathematicians in the world but if somebody just threw us a calculator or Siri did it for you, you are not ever going to have the foundation behind it.
There’s got to be times where we have high foundation days where we build without technology and we learn behind it. There’s got to be days where we take advantage of it and learn how we can use it and not become overwhelmed by it. The environment is a big one for a lot of people because it’s everybody from your teachers, family, friends, social media, leaders, peers, past leaders, current leaders and everybody you have ever worked with. We know that curiosity can be influenced by everybody we are around.
The numbers I gave earlier about how it peaks at about age five, the curiosity and then it tanks after that. A lot of that could be going into school and the teachers don’t have time because they are teaching for the test, you’ve got many students in class, you can’t answer why all the time. Our siblings can be brutal. If you do something that they don’t think is cool, you can take the wrath from that. It’s challenging to look at what has impacted us.
That’s one of the reasons why my research was interesting to me because I looked at these four factors of Fear, Assumptions, Technology, Environment, FATE and those were the inhibitors for the Curiosity Code Index and they were pretty evenly matched. Assumptions were higher and the environment was higher than technology maybe but then you can have an overlap. Fear from technology for example. It was fascinating to do the research. I studied thousands of people for years to see what inhibited them.
I started by putting a thread in LinkedIn and asking people and then I’ve got interested in that. I hired people to do all this factor analysis and ended up doing my research because a lot of the research kept coming back in the same fashion of trying to find out if you are curious or not. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find out what inhibits us. It was interesting to look at the difference between men and women. Men were less impacted by fear than women but they were more impacted by that voice in their heads. They were equal to women in technology but then, maybe more impacted by their environment. These results are what I have seen and I would like to see more research done.
It is interesting to take a look at how these different factors impact us. What I do is I train people to, first of all, take the Curiosity Code Index and I either go do the training at companies myself or I train consultants or HR professionals to give it. If those people get certified, they get five hours of SHRM recertification credit. There are a lot of different versions of training that I offer. What’s interesting is when they go through the training class, the employees get to find out their results from the CCI. It’s like taking a Myers-Briggs, a DISC or something. It takes ten minutes and you get the big report back in a PDF within a few minutes of taking it. It’s really simple.
They get to get their results and then they go through this personal SWOT analysis, which is cool because they look at ways to create SMART goals, measurable goals, those things to overcome some of these areas that are inhibiting them. Not only do they do that but then we do a similar thing for the corporation as a whole back to how they did it in Disney. You go to the horse’s mouth, you go to the employees and say, “How can we fix these things within the company? How can we help you become more curious?”Sometimes, it's through conversation that we find out what we need. Click To Tweet
If there are issues with innovation, engagement, whatever the company issues are, the training classes are a great starting place to go to the employees and say, “How can we make you more curious so we can have this end product? How can we get cake?” You find out and the trainers go back to leaders with this great report, “This is what employees would like to do to help them improve so that we can all improve and make more money.”
It’s important in the future of companies that people have to try, explore, poke at it and question it. It’s a huge thing that you need to ask yourself about, “How can I be vulnerable and allow this culture of learning? Maybe I don’t have all the answers,” and think about, “What are you doing to foster curiosity? What action plans do you have? How do you do this in this tumultuous time?” Thinking about this is challenging for a lot of people.
I have created a free course and a lot of people can get a lot of value out of it. If you are interested in taking it, go to DrDianeHamilton.com and scroll down to the bottom. It offers a free course if you sign up. It’s a simple thing. They send it right to you and you can learn a lot more about curiosity, the factors and see a lot of videos from the talks I have given and some of the stuff I have talked about here is in there. A lot of the chapters from the book are in there and it’s a good foundational way to learn more about curiosity. I wanted to give you that information and I hope you check that out and CuriosityCode.com.
I would like to thank Ximena for being my guest in this episode. We get so many great guests on this show. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection
- Think Again
- The TED Podcast Work Life
- Fast Company
- The Curiosity Code Index
- Cracking the Curiosity Code
- Francesca Gino – Previous Episode
- Ken Robinson – TED Talk
- Consortium for EI
- George Land – YouTube
- Holmes – Article
- State of Curiosity Report
- HBR article – The Business Case for Curiosity
- Daniel Goleman – Previous Episode
- Claudio Fernández-Aráoz – How to Look for Emotional Intelligence on Your Team
- Amy Edmondson – Previous Episode
- TED Talk – Amy Edmondson
- Campbell’s Soup
- Doug Conant – Previous Episode
- Zander Lurie – Previous Episode
- Daniel Pink – TED Talk
- Find Your Why
- Max Planck Institute
- SHRM recertification credit
About Ximena Vengoechea
User experience researcher, people leader, writer, illustrator, Ximena Vengoechea is the author of Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection, an essential guide to becoming a better listener to strengthen your relationships at work and at home. She is a frequent contributor to Fast Company, The Muse, and other publications, where she writes about personal and professional development and write a regular newsletter on creativity, tech, culture, and career.
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