Why it is So Important to be Curious Even When You Think You Are Right

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were so sure you were right and your partner was equally as sure they were right? How do you handle that?

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Why it is So Important to be Curious Even When You Think You Are Right

Why It Is So Important To Be Curious Even When You Think You Are Right

Picture of Nathan Cobb, <small>Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych</small>

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

Registered Psychologist and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist

It was about 9PM and we still had about two hours of driving before we reached our hotel for the night. We were leaving Yellowstone National Park, out of the north entrance. The next day we would drive all the way home in one go. We were on the tail end of a road trip to Utah and on the way back had spent a few days in Yellowstone, on our way home to Calgary, Canada.

Our kids were in the back. It was dusk, maybe even nighttime, I don’t recall. We had just left the little town that sits at that northern entrance of the huge park, when Natalie leans over a little to look at the speedometer and says, “the speed limit here is sixty-five [miles per hour].”

I say, “No it isn’t, it is seventy-five.”

“No, it is sixty-five.”

I thought back to the sign I know I saw just after leaving the town outskirts and said, “The sign back there said seventy-five.”

Natalie replied, “I saw the same sign. It said sixty-five.”

Now, normally, Natalie and I are not that competitive with each other, and we’ve learned over the years, generally, not to butt heads over matters like that, but what was going through my mind that night was, “I know what I saw. I know I’m right,” and I said, “Well, there’s one way to find out for sure.” To my surprise, Natalie said, “Okay.”

So, we pull off at the next exit, which was not far up the highway, double back onto the highway going the opposite direction, head back into town, turn around in town, and head north again on the highway.

As we’re driving along, I think “I’m going to win this one. I know it.” Natalie was just as sure she was right. We’re both watching the side of the road for the upcoming speed sign. Then we see it.

As we approach the sign, we discover it says very clearly seventy-five miles an hour in big, large font. “Hah!” I exclaim. “I was right.” Then, about fifty yards past that sign was another one, just like it, in the same large font, that said just as clearly, the number sixty-five.

Directly underneath the “65” was the word “Trucks”.
We both had a good laugh about that.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were so sure you were right and your partner was equally as sure they were right? How do you handle that?

What’s the point of this story?
The point is that much conflict in a relationship is of the variety, “I am right. You are wrong” or “there is only right view, here, and I have it.”

When we stick to this view and don’t give room for alternative points of view, we find ourselves in contention.

Most often, we can benefit each other and our relationship by adopting the view that “I have a valid view” and “you have a valid view.”

Now, objectively speaking, the fact was that the correct speed limit for our vehicle that night was, indeed, seventy-five. Of course, that only holds up until you start to consider that seventy-five mph was the maximum speed allowed, not necessarily the wisest speed to drive at given that it was night and that there might have been deer about or if it had been raining and the roads were slick. So, even with what we think of as objective “facts” there are subjective gray areas.

Having said that, however, I wish to speak less about the objective fact of the situation and more about each other’s subjective experience, what we both thought we saw, what we both internalized about what we saw, and how we both reacted to that experience of what we saw. How each of us responded to our subjective experience was valid, understandable, if you will … “right”.

Now, let’s explore another situation that further sheds light on the significance of individual subjective experience. Then I’ll conclude this post with a thought.

What I would like to do is walk you through a little exercise. I learned of this exercise many years ago. If memory serves me right, I believe it came from Dr. Peter Pearson, co-founder of Developmental Couples Therapy, but to be honest, I cannot be 100% positive. I just know it didn’t come from me.

First, fold your arms. Got it? Now, look down and notice whether you have your left arm over your right arm or your right arm over your left arm?

Notice that this is the way you always fold your arms. Notice that it feels “right”.

This is your subjective experience of folding your arms. You’ve been doing it so long you don’t even think about it. Have you ever thought about the fact that not everyone folds their arms the way you do?

Unfold your arms and let them fall by your side. Now refold them but, this time, focus on the arm that was on top before and put it on the bottom. Put the one that was on the bottom on the top.

Notice it is not as easy to do as you might think. Most people experience a momentary, “Uh … what? How do I do this?” Once you get it, though, notice how it feels. Strange? Awkward? Not “right”.

Even though it feels strange and “wrong” to you, a significant portion of people on the planet fold their arms this way and it feels “right” to them.

Now, again, I’m not arguing for relativism.

I’m simply pointing out that our subjective experience matters.

Have you ever had the experience where something that seemed obvious to you was not obvious to your spouse? Your way of folding your arms feels natural, unquestionable, “obvious” to you. But is it to your spouse?

If you want to avoid contention in your relationship, a very useful tool you can own is to be curious about the subjective experience of your spouse and be open to the very real possibility that while your view is “right” and valid, given your subjective experience, your spouse’s view is also “right” and valid given hers or his or theirs.

In relationships, recognizing the legitimacy of each partner’s subjective experience acts as a foundation for building understanding and resolving conflicts. Approaching differences with curiosity serves as a practical tool, creating a space where both voices are acknowledged, and both perspectives are valued.

It is paying attention to this subjective experience, being curious about it, being open-minded to it, that allows your partner to have another subjective experience of feeling heard and being seen, which in turn is a stepping-stone to resolving disputes and repairing and strengthening your relationship.