Is Curiosity The Cure For Conflict?

by May 5, 2022Resilience0 comments

Conflict is an unavoidable experience of life.  In this short essay I’ll discuss how avoiding conflict can actually lead to more conflict, and that curiosity may be the key to unlocking the potential for growth and development that resides within conflict itself.

In an ideal situation, two opinions gently collide, rubbing against one another until, through the thermogenic forces of ontological friction, a new (hopefully better) idea emerges.  This is what’s referred to in philosophy as a dialectic, mathematically expressed by the formula: thesis x antithesis = synthesis.

That’s the ideal situation, but as we all know, ideality is rarely reality.  Conflict can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, painful and sometimes bloody which is why many people work hard to avoid it.  The problem is, the more we neglect our muscles of dialectical reasoning, the more they will atrophy.  This is like the person who avoids exercise because it’s uncomfortable, and gradually loses their strength, mobility and fitness in the process.

Then for the conflict-avoidant person, when they encounter opposition to their ideas, they either crumble, run away, or stubbornly hold to their opinion despite all reason and logic to the contrary.  Now, I’m not talking about conflict for the sake of conflict, or argumentation just to be a contrarian.  What I’m talking about is a true exploration of our belief systems, opinions and biases for the purpose of making them better, more resilient and multi-dimensional.  What I’m suggesting is conflict as a means for mental and emotional strength, and even a deeper sense of trust and connection with those we rub up against.

Opinion-Generating Machines

We are opinion-generating machines!  In fact, most of your (and my) personality and ways of being are based purely on opinion.  Here’s how.  Opinion, bias, belief, whatever you want to call it, is a mechanism the brain uses for focusing attention.  This is a critical function of the brain.  Without our ability to pay attention to important things, we will be at best anxious and at worst…dead.  Attention is one of the core features of the brain that keep us hale, whole, and safely away from a premature death.

The neurological process for creating specific pathways in the brain that make sense of our environment and experience is biologically and metabolically expensive.  This includes the formation of beliefs, opinions and biases which I’ll refer to as BOBs.  Your BOBs are efficient programs that key you in to what’s important.  When my BOBs rub up against your BOBs there’s an opportunity!  But, since my BOBs were so expensive to create, I’ll actually feel some anxiousness, and unease when my BOB is challenged.  In fact, many people report feeling nausea, anxiety, irritability, sweating, dry mouth, and uneasiness when someone contradicts one of their strongly held opinions.  It’s odd that just being contradicted can cause a list of symptoms that could easily be construed as side effects of a pharmaceutical drug…talk to your doctor to see if Conflixigen is right for you!

Those experiences (symptoms) while unpleasant, aren’t dangerous or even bad.  They are natural readiness cues.  They are the constellation of sensations that accompany the possibility for changes in our automatic thought and behavior programs, aka…neuropathways.  Have you ever had an argument with someone or a debate that left you feeling as fatigued as if you had been running all-out for 30 minutes instead of just talking?  Even though you’re not actually sprinting during a verbal conflict, your brain is using a tremendous amount of energy in the form of glucose and fatty acids to protect, reinforce, change, or synthesize your opinions during a conversation.  This experience can lead to feelings of malaise, an unpleasant feeling we’ve naturally learned to avoid or reduce.

Back to our exercise analogy from before.  If we avoid exercise, we’ll get fatigued more quickly.  If we avoid conflict or stubbornly stick to our cherished points of view, we’ll experience malaise, anxiety and irritability more often during conflicts.

The Solution?

Now that my legs are thoroughly tired from kicking that dead horse, you’re probably asking, “what’s the proposed solution?”  Remember when you were a child, before you built or adopted all these opinions and convictions about how the world works?  There’s a good chance you were more playful and curious.  The intense degree of neurological development you were undergoing as a child didn’t feel as uncomfortable because there was significantly less resistance.  The moon’s made of cheese?  That’s plausible.  While the facts about the lacto-fermented composition of the moon are definitely wrong…unless you’re a Flat Earther or Cheese Mooner…the sentiment is still celebrated today because here you see the call and response of curiosity and imagination, of play and problem solving.

Ok, with your permission, I’d like to get a little sciencey for a moment.  Let’s talk brain networks, and more specifically about the networks responsible for attention.  Why attention?  If you remember, I proposed that our BOBs are ways to focus our attention and give us a sense of safety and security in this potentially chaotic existence.

Attentional Networks:

  1. Salience Network (SN) – Decides for us what’s relevant and important based on our neurological programming.
  2. Executive Attentional Network (EAN) – Focuses a spotlight on what the SN has deemed most important.
  3. Action Observation Network (AON) – Observes, anticipates and automatically reacts to input in the way that’s most appropriate to our programming.

These three main attention networks are constantly working together to streamline our relationship between stimulus and response, between our environment and our appropriate reactions.  In fact, when people are in a deep flow state, these three networks are working seamlessly and almost effortlessly to produce a state of intense focus.  We as humans LOVE this experience.  In fact most people will rate these experiences as the most enjoyable experiences of their lives.  We won’t talk too much about flow states in this essay but I do have other essays that dive more deeply into this topic if you’re interested.

But…then comes doubt or distraction to throw a monkey wrench into the whole situation and that blissful state of pure presence and effortless attention slides like a piano down a long flight of stairs leaving a cacophony of annoyance in its wake.  Enter the Default Mode Network (DMN).

If the attentional networks are like a well-tuned Formula 1 race car, the DMN is like a combination of Willy Wonka’s anxiety-provoking chocolate river ferry and a Dr. Seuss car.  The DMN is where anything can happen.  “I wonder…can I build a flying machine?”  The DMN at work.  “I wonder if the audience will hate my speech and boo me off stage?”  Also the DMN at work.  It’s the network that’s responsible for curiosity and imagination.  This is where we go to when we’re daydreaming, when we’re fantasizing about our crush, architecting the solution to a problem, fretting about something in the future, or regretting some past foible.  Just like the attentional networks, the DMN isn’t good or bad, it’s just how we use them.

One of the benefits of the attentional networks is that we don’t need to waste too much time thinking about what needs to be done.  The program is set, the triggers have happened, and we’re off to the races.  The problem is that our attentional networks are largely responsible for our biased actions and limited opinions.  One benefit of the DMN is its ability to inform and actually change the programming of our attentional networks.  This isn’t easy, but it can be done.  

Skipping Rocks:

For example, I was teaching my nephew how to skip rocks on the Truckee River during a recent trip.  After 10 attempts with 10 different rocks and all the fine advice an uncle can furnish, his 11th rock plomped directly into the river and sunk to the bottom, along with his confidence in the ever-important art of rock skipping.  He then said loudly and resolutely, “I’ll never figure out how to skip rocks.”  I was tempted to lay out all the wisdom to the Universe right then but settled for a “hmmmm…,” and continued skipping my own rocks, handing him good ones when I found them.  As you might have guessed, he finally skipped a rock, and then another.  By the time we were called in for dinner, his score had gone from 0-for-11 to 8-for-20…a big improvement.  When I asked him what changed he said he was watching me do it, and if I could do it then he probably could too.  He adopted a new belief, and unconsciously his DMN  intervened in his neurological programming to actually change how he moved his body in order to skip the rock.

As the saying goes…”rules are made to be broken.”  In the same way, neurological pathways are made to be challenged.  Opinions are made to be changed and biases only illuminate our limitations, showing us what else is possible.

Here we come to the crux of this entire essay.  How do we gracefully navigate conflict and differences in perspective and opinion?  I propose this solution.  Cultivate curiosity!  I know this may sound nebulous and hard to achieve but it doesn’t have to be.  Here’s a simple exercise you can do to cultivate more curiosity as a means to engage in meaningful conflict, creativity, and problem solving.

Cultivating Curiosity:

Ok, someone comes up to you and suggests an idea that you initially reject and may even think is stupid.  Your attentional networks are bristling at the completely inefficient novel data.

Step 1 – Pay attention to how you’re feeling in response to their suggestion or opinion.

Step 2 – If you’re not feeling overly gracious with your attention or patience try asking yourself “am I curious right now?”

Step 3 – If the answer is “not really,” then ask yourself, “what’s preventing me from being curious right now?”  This is the magic question! 

When you pause for a moment, shifting your attention from your programmed thoughts, opinions and processes, and focus on how you’re feeling, you can become more present and open.

When you ask “am I curious right now?” you are stimulating your curiosity muscles to start working.

Then, when you ask “what’s preventing me from being curious right now,” you put yourself right into the middle of your imagination system.  This action by itself will actually make you more curious and might even stimulate a bit of playfulness.  Then, once your attentional networks have slowed down enough to include new data from another person’s perspective, your imagination can step in and facilitate a good, productive conversation.

In Summary:

Our relationships have the highest potential for driving us into deep flow states, for stimulating creativity and experiencing fulfillment.  The glue for relationships is communication, and curiosity is a type of adhesive that bonds people together toward a common goal.  It’s tempting to barricade ourselves behind the high and safe walls of our opinions and beliefs, but when we invite people to challenge our ideas, and open ourselves to the possibility that our opinions may lack dimensionality, some magic happens.  We no longer have to take on all the responsibility for fixing all the broken things.  We can learn to trust and work well together, and maybe even have some fun along the way.

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