Being curious

Several years ago, while serving as pastor of a large, active downtown parish I was on the sidewalk in front of church, after Mass, when I was approached by someone. They wanted to ask a question – one of those questions that is more accusation than question, a civil conversation disguising an angry person. They wanted to know why the priest who had celebrated the Mass “just raised the Sacred Body of Jesus with just one hand… It was so disrespectful.”

Clearly the person believed that the Roman Missal required the just consecrated host to be elevated with two hands just as they had always seen. The Roman Missals simply directs the celebrant to elevate the host so that the people are able to see it. Granted it is almost universally true that celebrants raise the host with two hands. Even in the moment, I was struck by how the anger of the person came through the asking of the pseudo-question. It was interesting that that person, seeing something different than expected, wasn’t curious about why, but was so sure what they believed to be true was universally rooted in what they were used to seeing rather than what was required.

One of the things we learn in life is to assume, defer to and respect expertise. Every physician in medical practice deals with patients with degrees from the medical school of WebMD. Every certified mechanic has encountered the shade-tree mechanic. Every professional athlete has had to engage a fan with advice. Every priest, after years of seminary training, gets to chat with the would-be-canon-lawyer, liturgist, and theologian from the sidewalk of life.

It is in those moments we all are prone to operate from: the assumption that what we believe, what we learned, what we have practiced is the truth. Hopefully so, but how often we make no allowance for being wrong – WebMD graduate and seminary-trained priest alike. In some of those moments we value our own beliefs more than the truth. We go into the defend–to-the-death mode. We forget the admonishment of St. Augustine: humility is the foundation of the virtues, and we seem to have bypassed curiosity.

Would the ensuing conversation have been different if the question had been, “I am curious. Can I ask you a question? I am used to seeing the priest elevate the host with both hands. I noticed at the Mass I just attended that the priest raised it with only one hand? I’m not sure how I feel about that. Can you help me understand?”  Since I was the recipient of the original question (and its undertones), for my part, I can say I would have received the question very differently. My answer would have been the same…I hope.

I can remember a doctor whose professional opinion about my eyes (and what I was seeing in my field of vision) was very different from what I had diagnosed from online sources. Timidly I offered, “Might there be some chance it is….” I didn’t get to finish the question. I was cut off with “And where did you get your medical degree? Where did you do your residency?” He was probably having a bad day or I was just part of his never ending nightmare of patients. I politely remained silent – an annoyed humility.

I understand his annoyance. I didn’t understand his bed-side manner. But I mostly wondered why he wasn’t curious about what I had to say. Perhaps I was about to say I thought I had river-blindness. He might have replied, “That’s interesting. Have you….” and then elegantly dismissed my diagnosis when my answers failed to support the diagnosis.

We finished the visit and I thanked him for his time. In the parking lot, I called my sister, a physician of many decades who got me a same-day appointment with a medical school classmate who was the leading ophthalmologist in the area. He was curious about my symptoms, asked differentiating questions, and was engaging – perhaps because he was friends with my sister, but I suspect that was his bed-side manner.  His exam confirmed my amateur diagnosis, told me my vision would get more cloudy in the one eye, not to worry about it and it would all clear up in a week or so. There was nothing to do but be patient.

That is in the regular stuff of life. What about in today’s political divisions when people in conversations are mired in divisions and distinctions between opinion, beliefs, facts, data and truth. How can we stay open and curious in potentially hard conversations? …or just in general?

Here are some things to consider.

Listen longer. If you have asked for a response and the person is beginning to elaborate, do you find yourself jumping on the first thing you heard that you “know” to be wrong – and that you are chomping at the bit to jump in with your response? … and then not actually listening anymore? Listen longer. Show a little restraint.

Don’t try to score points or change minds. If you want to be more curious when you talk to people who think differently from you, don’t try to win or change minds. It’ll distract you from a more interesting and productive conversation that might be much more likely to end up changing minds.

Understand the difference between opinion and your final answer. Your opinion is not the final answer. It’s a snapshot of where your mind is right now. It’s not something you have to defend. So next time someone asks you what you think about a contentious issue, start with something like, “Here’s what I am thinking right now…”  It is useful when offering criticisms:  “When I hear you say that, my reaction is, ‘That can’t be right.’ Can I tell you why I think I’m reacting that way?”

Acknowledge agreement. When you’re in conversation with someone who disagrees with you, finding something you agree on is like building a basecamp partway up a mountain.  It is still a long slog up the mountain, but acknowledging agreement can be a moment of respite. “You know, I agree with that,” (and leave out the “but….”)

Acknowledge good points. Say “That’s a good point” or “Sure, that’s fair,” before asking your next question or making your next point.  Such acknowledgment helps balance the conversation with respect.

Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Don’t sidestep the gap in your knowledge. A candid “I don’t know” is a signal that you’re not in it to win it or to seem impressive. Add to that, “Tell me more”  is a signal you’re curious.

That’s what I could come up with. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the Comments section.

Perhaps you are wondering about the sidewalk conversation that started this article. My response was, “That’s a good question. Did you ask the priest?” The response was, “I’m asking you. You’re the pastor.” That sent me down the path of annoyed humility. But a deep breath later, I said something to the effect of, “Well I think everyone would agree that it is normal for the priest to elevate the host with two hands even though the requirement is to simply elevate the host so that it is visible. If you had asked him you probably would have heard an interesting story about the time he stopped on a country road to render assistance, was struck by a car, spent three months in the hospital, a series of operations,  many months in rehab, and in the end, is unable to raise one arm above shoulder level. He is a tough fellow.”

“Thanks, I didn’t know.” The man went over to thank the priest for celebrating Mass.

It ended up well enough.

2 thoughts on “Being curious

  1. Loved this! Such needed advice in every walk of life. Getting ready for a college reunion where a couple dear, old friends are on another”political” team. I needed that!
    Thanks.

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