Empathic Curiosity: Where's Your Attention?
How to better understand and connect with the people around you.
Posted March 28, 2023 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Making assumptions about others can limit our ability to connect with them.
- Empathic curiosity is a desire to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings.
- Nurturing your empathic curiosity can help you connect more deeply with the people around you.
One morning, while philosopher Martin Buber was meditating in his room, a former student knocked on his door and asked to talk. Buber politely listened and engaged with his visitor, but his attention was elsewhere — he was eager to get back to his meditation.
Eventually, his student left, but Buber never saw him again. Shortly after their conversation, the young man took his life.
This experience profoundly impacted Buber and permanently shifted his worldview. “I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision,” he later wrote in his book Between Man and Man.
Buber believed that if he hadn’t been so engrossed in his religious pursuits, he could have recognized that his former student was in peril. From that moment forward, Buber committed to being fully present and listening to what he called the “unspoken question.”
According to Buber, the key to understanding each other is not to merely listen but to set aside our self-preoccupation and place our full attention on the other human before us.
Of course, as busy adults, that’s easier said than done — particularly in a society that nurtures ego-centric tendencies, encourages us to pack our schedules, and provides near-constant distractions. How can we quiet our internal chatter long enough to hear another’s unspoken question?
This is where empathic curiosity can help.
Unlike diversive curiosity, which is a generative desire to explore new things, or epistemic curiosity, which is the hunger for knowledge, empathic curiosity is a deep yearning to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings (and the reasons behind them). And by honing your empathic curiosity, you can genuinely understand another person’s emotions and perspectives and build stronger bonds.
How Empathic Curiosity Helps Us Form More Meaningful Connections
Whether you’re meeting someone for the first time or talking to a friend or family member, we often skip ahead and make assumptions about what someone is attempting to convey. You might rush to interpret what the other person means or inadvertently tune them out while you form a response.
When someone comes to you with a problem, you might listen to fix. Or when someone presents a conflicting viewpoint, you might listen to win. Empathic curiosity, on the other hand, helps us listen to learn.
When you approach interactions with curiosity and a desire to understand people on a human-to-human level, you’ll naturally begin to engage more deeply. Instead of immediately reacting or making a knee-jerk assessment, this form of curiosity helps you become more interested in what another person has to say, even if you don’t share the same values or opinions.
In a time when most of us exist within political and ideological echo chambers, empathic curiosity can be the bold leap we need to connect diverse groups of people.
Take, for example, Theo E.J. Wilson — a public speaker, activist, and Black man who went undercover in online alt-right communities to better understand their motives. By setting aside his assumptions, entering those spaces with curiosity, and listening to what people far outside his echo chamber had to say, he felt something he never expected: compassion.
“Never in a billion years did I think that I could have some kind of compassion for people who hated my guts,” Wilson said in his 2017 TEDx Talk. And while he doesn’t agree with their ideologies, embracing empathic curiosity helped him uncover how alt-right supporters arrived at their conclusions within their own echo chambers. This perspective also helped him recognize the need for what he calls “courageous conversations” to heal the growing divide within the U.S.
In my book Tracking Wonder, I unpack six key facets of wonder, and the one I consider most important is connection. Connection speaks to our desire to belong, helps us bust our biases toward other people, and enables us to sync up with and support one another. Empathic curiosity and connection are seminal to how I work with teams who work remotely and often feel disconnected.
In the chapter on connection, I discuss this essential piece: How we approach conversations can also impact whether the other person opens up or shuts down.
According to organizational anthropologist Judith Glaser, there’s a body chemistry of conversations. Inclusive and supportive interactions trigger a release of oxytocin (the “love hormone”) and the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which help us feel happy and good. Conversely, when we feel rejected or minimized, we produce more cortisol, the stress hormone that shuts down the brain's thinking center and activates the “fight or flight” response.
In other words, entering conversations with empathic curiosity can help people feel more positive and foster a sense of trust. In fact, it can even help healthcare professionals drive better patient outcomes.
“Caregivers who can learn to sustain their genuine curiosity about and receptivity to patients' perspectives, even in the midst of emotionally charged interactions, not only reduce levels of anger and frustration for both parties, they can significantly improve decision-making on both ends and increase the effectiveness of treatment,” says Dr. Jodi Halpern in an article for UC Berkely News.
Cardiologist Jonathan Fischer is a case in point. Author of the book Just One Heart: A Cardiologist’s Practical Guide to the Mind-Heart Connection, Jonathan routinely asks his patients questions about their personal interests and hobbies. He’s genuinely curious, and he knows that his curiosity and care play a key part in his patients’ healing.
Growing Your Empathic Curiosity
If you find yourself inadvertently analyzing other people’s actions and words during conversations, you’re not alone. The good news is, with practice, you can overcome this default and shift your focus to other people’s thoughts and emotions.
Here are a few suggestions for nurturing your empathic curiosity:
1. Bring back the childhood habit of asking, “why?” “why not?” and “what if?”
As children, many of us learned about our world (and the people in it) by asking questions, and re-establishing this habit as an adult can help us better understand each other.
Next time you’re in a conversation, allow your innate curiosity to take the wheel and see where it takes you. For example, if someone shares an opinion, you might ask a series of follow-up questions to better understand how they arrived at that conclusion. Or, if you meet someone in a profession or field you don’t know much about, you can use the conversation as an opportunity to grow your knowledge.
2. Listen with your feet
In my workshops, I often remind people to listen with their feet. In other words, when someone is speaking to you, drop your attention to your feet and then strive to listen with your whole body. Make eye contact with the speaker, resist any urges to interrupt them, and work to focus entirely on what they are saying. If you notice your thoughts drifting or begin to form a response in your head, stop and gently guide yourself back to the present.
3. Immerse yourself in stories
One way to reignite your natural curiosity about others is to read stories. A University of Toronto study found that people who read fiction score higher on empathy and social-acumen measures. And a study recently published in Academy Psychiatry shows narrative-style podcasts may produce similar results.
4. Reflect on interactions
Next time you meet someone new, take a moment to assess whether you’re sizing up their personality and worldview or making other assumptions about the meaning behind their words. If so, ask yourself what you genuinely want to know about them and follow your curiosity. For example, you might ask about their ambitions and life goals or what excites them.
You can also try this exercise after encounters with people you know well. Consider whether you jumped to conclusions about their thoughts and feelings, how well you listened, and how you may drop your assumptions and listen more closely next time.
As Martin Buber learned the hard way, listening to each other isn’t always enough, and when we make assumptions, we miss the critical messages and intentions that can help us connect more deeply.
By honing empathic curiosity, we can learn more about our fellow humans and form meaningful relationships that heal divides, overcome loneliness, and make our short time on this planet a richer experience.
Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1947).
“A Black man goes undercover in the alt-right.” TED. Sep 21, 2017.
Judith E. Glaser, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (New York: Routledge, 2016).
"Researcher offers steps to help doctors move past anger with patients." UC Berkeley News. May 08, 2007.
Powers S, Craig W, Kohut M, Hallward A. Narrative Podcasts to Foster Empathy and Reduce Stigma Among Third-Year Medical Students. Acad Psychiatry. 2023 Mar 14:1–5. doi: 10.1007/s40596-023-01764-y. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36918469; PMCID: PMC10014135.