Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Curiosity as a Commons Value

Posted by Kim Klein

I have a category of people I call “NIMF” which stands for Nothing Is My Fault. I thought about these people this weekend at a talk I went to by psychotherapist and Buddhist retreat leader, George Taylor.  I meet these people a lot in customer service roles. 

ME:  My flight has been cancelled and so I will miss the meeting I was flying to attend.  Can I cancel this ticket and use the credit later?

CUSTOMER SERVICE:  You will have to pay a $150 change fee.

ME:  But the plane had a mechanical problem.  I don’t think I should have to pay a change fee.

CUSTOMER SERVICE:  I don’t make the rules.  Those are the rules.  There is nothing I can do about it. 

Or a recent run-in with a hotel clerk: 

ME:  The plastic card that opens my door isn’t working.  Can you reactivate?

CLERK:  You must have put it near your cell phone.  Don’t do that in the future. 

ME:  Actually I just got the key and haven’t had it near my cell phone as it has been in my hand the whole time. 

CLERK:  You probably brushed up against your cell phone.  These cards don’t de-activate themselves, you know. 

I admit, and my partner will testify, that I am not always the first to take responsibility for things.  “Did you get milk on your way home?” often yields, “I thought you were getting it” rather than, “I completely forgot.” 

It turns out our brains are kind of wired for negative and defensive reactions.  Taylor noted that for millennia we had to be alert for danger:  fire, saber-toothed tigers, snakes and the like.  Even today, walking down the street we are not so much on the lookout for a beautiful cloud or a fragrant rose, but are much more attuned to watching strangers behaving oddly or dodging fast moving vehicles. 

In such hostile environments, the ego also protects itself by preemptively warding off attack:  “I am not weird—that other person is weird.” Or “The customers are angry and threatening and I have to strike first.”    Taylor said the brain holds on to negative thoughts like Velcro and to positive thoughts like Teflon—the negative sticks and the positive slides right off.  In fact in the field of child psychology it is clear that it takes at least five instances of genuine praise and encouragement to wipe out one instance of criticism.  

I know this from being a trainer:  after a training, I will have 30 positive evaluations but will hone in on the one critical evaluation.  I will go over and over that participant’s comments. If the comment has been particularly negative I may fear that it is time for me to stop training.  To cure myself of that thought I will tell myself, “This is not my fault.  He misunderstood.  He wasn’t paying attention most of the time anyway.” Sometimes I might even add, “That participant was kind of a jerk.”
The problem with our predilection to react defensively to every shadow—both physical and psychological—is that we spend a good deal of our lives in fear and anxiety.  Taylor recommends making a conscious choice to approach anything scary (which, from the point of view of our unconscious, is most activities of daily life) with an attitude of curiosity:  we still protect ourselves but we don’t immediately default to defensiveness.   For example in the training evaluations, what if I just thought, “One person didn’t like the training.  I’m sorry about that but I am glad that 30 people did like it.  I’m curious what I could have done to make it better for that person. ” Perhaps I even call that person and learn something, but I don’t let it define how  (or whether) I train in the future.

In the examples above, what if I said, “You probably get tired of this question, but since my flight is cancelled, can I use the credit another time?” or with the hotel clerk, “Me again!  I am not able to make my room key work.  Can you help me?”  The fact is that I often set up the circumstances for someone to be defensive because I am so clear that I am not at fault.  I set off this reaction. 

A commitment to a commons society means making sure there is a kind of psychological “open space” of friendliness that does what it can to override the negative velcro.  I can open up that space around me—it won’t cost anything, it doesn’t mean I surrender anything.  It just means I exercise choices I do have—choices set to not set off alarm bells in others by overriding the alarm bells in myself.  And the great thing is the curiosity is a fairly easy practice because most of us are curious, perhaps even nosy, people.  I love the idea of curiosity being a commons value and look forward to exploring it more. 


Note:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly named George Taylor. Those of you familiar with Buddhist psychotherapists may well have thought, “This Chamberlin Kim refers to sounds a lot like George Taylor, whose wife (also a noted Buddhist teacher and therapist) is named Debra Chamberlin-Taylor.  And you would have been right.  I conflated their names, and because I need to work on mindfulness as well as kindness, I accidently called him by the wrong name.  He is George Taylor.  Sorry about that.

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