Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat But It Saves Relationships

Good communication is easy, but curious communication is anything but easy. And it may be the difference maker in every relationship. Because words matter, but they mean something different to everybody…


Photo Credit: RelaxingMusic via Compfight cc

It’s about a hundred degrees below zero, as my daughter and I get out of the car at her preschool on a winter Wednesday morning. She grabs my hand, I look at her, and I say, “Let’s run into the warm building!”

She won’t budge.

She looks at me like I’m crazy.

“That’s not a building,” she says in a severe teacherly tone, as if she’s the one who’s almost forty and I’m the one who’s just getting started.

I’ve already lost feeling in my toes and I’m pretty sure the skin on my face will never be the same, but I’m curious about how her little brain works, so instead of arguing and pulling her along like a fish on a line, I ask, “If that’s not a building, what is it?”

“Daddy,” she says, “that’s not a building; that’s a school.”

Now all feeling is gone from my fingers, too, but my curiosity gets the best of me again.

“So, what is a building?”

A lopsided smile appears on her face. She doesn’t say, “Duh,” but it’s implied. “Daddy, a building is a place you go to work.”


Then she drags me inside like a fish on a line.

Words matter. But they mean something different to each of us. Which can be a small problem in a parking lot, but a much bigger problem in a marriage or partnership or friendship or any meaningful relationship of any kind.


I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: communication isn’t terribly complicated. There are a few basic rules: one speaker and one listener at all times; the speaker’s job is to avoid blame and to focus on expressing his or her own experience; the listener’s job is to listen closely and to paraphrase what was said to confirm it was heard accurately; and partners should share the floor equally over the course of a conversation.

Communication is simple, but the words we communicate are not.

For instance, if you tell me you’re sad, I can be a good listener by reflecting back to you that you are feeling sad, but that accomplishes very little. Because I know what sad means to me, but I don’t know what sad means to you. To me, sad means lonely and disconnected from the people around me. It means I work harder and bottle up my feelings. To you, sad might mean you are in despair about your future, can’t get out of bed, and you’re eating chocolate like it could save your life.

We assume we know what someone means when they use a particular word. We project our own definition onto it. We assume their intention in using it is the same as ours would be. But if we aren’t curious about what certain key words mean to certain key people in our life, we can easily end up having two entirely different conversations, while assuming we’re talking about the same thing.


Many years ago I was working with a couple in conflict about a television. He wanted to add a television to the living room. She didn’t. I worked hard to facilitate the discussion and shed light upon any underlying issues interfering with the communication. As I was listening to them debate, something dawned on me, and I became curious:

I asked her, “Which room do you mean when you say ‘living room’?”

“I mean the living room,” she replied.

“Yes,” I said, “but can you describe it?”

“It’s the room next to the kitchen, with the bookshelves and the fireplace.” She didn’t say, “Duh,” but it was implied.

I looked at him.

He looked back at me, an epiphany dawning upon his face. Then he looked at his wife and said, “When I say ‘living room,’ I mean the room in the basement with the ping pong table.”

“Oh.” she said. “That’s the family room. I don’t care if you put three televisions in there.”

Curiosity may kill the cat, but it can save our relationships.

One Word

Good communication is about following the rules of engagement. But curious communication is about preserving and cultivating attentiveness within a relationship. Curious communication is hard, because we have to slow down. We have to forsake results and complicate the problem for a little while. We have to stop skating on the surface and fall into the depths. We have to put down our agendas, set aside our expectations, and put our certainty in check. We have to let go of the ego within us that wants attention, and we have to settle into the soul within us that knows how to give attention.

“What do you mean by that?”

The question can be asked defensively or curiously. Asking it defensively can kill the relationship, and most relationships don’t have nine lives. But asking it curiously can save the relationship.

You might find out a building is a place you go to work. You might find out a living room is actually a family room. You might find out what sad means.

You might even find out what love means.

One curious word at a time.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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19 thoughts on “Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat But It Saves Relationships

  1. I must say thank you for another great article and to make me one of your fans I really appreciate your articles because they give me hope for the future and also encourage me to think differently as compared to how I normally conclude everything. Its more like you are telling me to think again and get something positive, thank you again may you be blessed as well as your family.

    • You are very welcome, and I’m really glad my angle on things is resonating with you and bringing a little more hope to things. I think you might like next week’s post; it’s mostly about hope!

  2. Dear Mr. Kelly,
    I simply want to tell you “THANK YOU SO MUCH” for sharing all the articles…It gives me all the learning point in life and relationships and most of all it gives me HOPE IN LIFE.

    your avid fan,

    • Dear Jed, You’re welcome, and blessings to you, too! One of the most delightful surprises in my life has been writing this blog and meeting readers. Thanks for reading!

  3. I want to bring you home with me so you can referee my conversations with my husband! Can I do that, please?! Thanks for another great article and things to think about!!

  4. So often the ways we let people around us know that they are important is by letting them feel how interesting they are when they share what the think, how they are feeling, and the things they are excited about or planning for. And how foolishly we assume that we know those closest to us so well that there are no mysteries left in the things they want to share, when they can tell we are truly following the conversation.

    Thank you for the reminder to keep my mind fresh and my ears open to my familiar companions, as to my new ones.

    • Shel, I’ve missed you! Been wondering if you’re well. I hope your health is good. Just know, your absence is felt as much as your presence.

      • How kind of you! I’m working with some truly innovative individuals to make some sustained health improvements and have been able to increase my hours working with early education programs in our local school. I’m fulfilled but spent — and I’ve missed seeing the insights your readers add to the blog that arrives in my inbox!

        You have such a gift and you’ve drawn a very cool group of people who add so meaningfully to your ideas.

  5. It’s amazing how each of your topics give us a better perspective on events happening in our lives. Absolutely love this article. My husband always insists of open channels of communication. It’s usually me who clams up and stew in my many moods unable to vocalise my thoughts at that moment. In your article, you mentioned about asking questions in curiosity and not defensively . Inspiring!!!!
    I will be sharing this with my entire family as it applies in all relationships. Thank you very much for putting in time and effort into your writings and giving us something to look forward to every Wednesday evening (time in Singapore). Take care x

  6. Hi Dr.Kelly,

    As I was reading this I couldn’t help but smile and little.
    I wanted to share how this curious communication has always been a natural part of my life. It must have developed at a very young age and I am continuously utilizing it and polishing it.
    You see, I am a french Canadian, but I don’t live in Quebec. I live in the Province of Ontario where we are a bilingual province. As such, many of us, french and english speaking people tend to have this curious disposition towards communication.

    Yu see, a french person’s understanding of an english word or expression can be quite different or non-existing compared to an english speaking person. And the same can be said about an english person’s understanding of our word usage and expressions.
    So as a bilingual person I find myself, and others too, we tend to have a more curious way of communicating. We are intunely aware of the importance of understanding other people’s words and making sure we use the appropriate words during conversation. This insures we’re on the same page.
    Sometimes I can see how some people could feel uncomfortable admitting they don’t understand what someone else is saying when it seems so straight forward but I have learned, that we can never be sure and people are more open and willing to confirm than to judge.

    Anyways, I just thought it was interesting. It made me think about this curious disposition. Until i read this article I hadn’t thought to make a correlation between languages and communicative dispositions.

  7. I really appreciate the story about the family room. Just kills me. I’ve been fortunate to be married to someone I’m well suited to. That said, your point about communication still applies; in some ways it is even more critical since we have been together so long.
    Paraphrasing part of a prayer attributed to St Francis I “try to understand, rather then to be understood”
    Not easy to pull off, but boy does it pay dividends

  8. Dr. Kelly, thank you for the article and bringing up such important issue. We all indeed may put different meanings in words, and sometimes that misunderstanding leads to horrific consequences. I agree that we should all be more curios not just about other people’s lives and feelings, but more importantly, how they define it. Thank you for that amazing article!

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