The Power of a Curious Mindset

Today I want to talk about one small shift, a simple change in mindset, that can diffuse conflicts and help partners understand one another more deeply.

Imagine approaching a tense discussion with your partner first from an attitude of wanting to understand what they think, feel, believe, and prefer, and how they came to their conclusions before trying to get your point across.

This is leading with curiosity.

It’s easy to assume that you know what your partner means and why they think what they do. Perhaps you have had this discussion many times before, and you believe you know exactly what they will say.

However, you might be missing something important by making these assumptions. When you respond by debating, defending, de-railing, objecting, or any number of other ineffective responses, you don’t just shut down your ability to understand your partner, you also miss out on an opportunity to help your partner take their thoughts to a deeper level. When you ask your partner truly curious questions, in an effort to understand their perspective, you open up the possibility of an “aha!” moment of understanding that can deepen your connection.

Approaching with an attitude of curiosity can also help you manage your emotions during a tense discussion. If you’re able to maintain the mindset that your partner is simply telling you something about how they see the world, it can help you stay steady emotionally, and avoid taking on blame or thinking that your partner’s opinions are an indictment of your beliefs and preferences. We are all different, so it’s totally normal and to be expected that you and your partner will see things differently. No big deal! How interesting! I wonder how they came to think that, or respond in that way.

Next time you find yourself in a tense conversation with your partner, and you notice your stress rising, take a moment and breathe. Remind yourself, “We have plenty of time to work this out, and we don’t need to come to a resolution right away. It will help us both if we proceed with as much understanding and information as possible, so I’m going to spend this time just trying to figure out where my partner is coming from and what they really mean, before I react to what they’re saying. This is an opportunity to learn something new about this unique person that I love. What they’re telling me is a reflection of their life experiences, and I truly want to know them.”

Set aside the part of you that fears being judged, or wants to be heard first, or has the right opinion. Then, ask a question–not a loaded, “how could you say that…”-type question, but a question of honest curiosity:

  • “That’s so interesting. Tell me more about how you see that.”
  • “What just happened for you? How did what I said get under your skin?”

When you do this well, your reward can be a revelation–a peek into how your partner sees the world. What could be more rewarding than that?

7 Tips for Getting Creative: A Sex Therapist’s Guide to Trying New Things

  1. Learn about how you get turned on–and off. All too often we think about arousal as if it’s an off-on switch–you’re either turned on or you’re not. In reality, research shows that it’s more like an accelerator and a brake. Doing things that turn you on is like pushing the accelerator. No matter how hard you push, you’re still not going to get anywhere if you have your foot on the brake. However sexy you find the other person, if you’re in a situation that grosses you out, or if you’re worrying about that fight you had over breakfast, or whatever else hits YOUR brake, you’re probably not going to get turned on.
  2. Don’t be spontaneous. Spontaneity is great if you’re feeling safe, in charge, and able to easily say yes, no, or not now.  But if you’re nervous about something, being put on the spot will only make it worse. Do yourself and your partner a favor and talk things through a bit first. If either of you is nervous, definitely check in frequently as the action unfolds.
  3. Take your foot off the brake. Ask yourself what keeps you from experiencing desire. What hits the “off” button for you? What interrupts your groove? This is very individual, and there is no right or wrong answer. For some it helps to remove distractions, or find a good babysitter, or maybe take a bath or nap to get in a relaxed place, or go to the gym to get some energy flowing. Whatever it is for you, take some pressure off the brake so you and your partner can make the “on” button work better. If you can work together to take pressure off of both your brakes, both of you win!
  4. Help your partner get their foot off the brake, too. Talk to them about what helps them relax and help get them into a situation that feels comfortable. Be prepared to compromise and start with a less-intense version of the activity if necessary.
  5. Engage the accelerator. Now that you’re a little more relaxed, and your foot is easing off the brake, you and your partner can begin to explore what feels sexy and pleasurable to each of you. Let desire begin to bloom.
  6. NOW is a good time to introduce the new thing. Once you’re feeling connected, and sexy vibes are flowing, you are much more likely to move toward a new activity with curiosity rather than fear.

  7. Assess. If you and your partner enjoy the activity, great–you’ve discovered something you can add to your repertoire, and next time you almost certainly won’t be as nervous. If you’re on the fence, remember that familiarity and freedom to stop, start, and slow down can build over time into a resounding “yes!” You don’t have to cross it off the list entirely, but be careful not to pressure your partner to do something they feel uncertain about. That safe, permissive environment is what creates an ability to explore new things. If one or both of you realizes the new activity isn’t for you at this time, that’s okay. Relish the success: you have learned more about yourself and your partner, and strengthened your connection at the same time.