When Curiosity Killed the Rat (updated)

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]


Dear Friends—

This article was originally published about five years ago. People seemed to find it helpful back then; it also feels relevant now. Not all problems can be resolved solely with active listening and empathy (often, we also need action, including restorative or protective solutions) but it’s a solid place to begin.

Sending wishes for care, hope and effectiveness, Lisa


RECENTLY I PRESENTED an intro to Collaborative Communication for an organization wanting to learn how to talk across the political divide. During Q&A, the participants cut straight to the chase: “What is the one most important thing to know about effective communication?” they asked. “What will help us talk to people with different beliefs?” This is a perfectly reasonable yet totally overwhelming question. That night I answered their query with one of my own: Before you tell your side of the story, would you be willing to show the other person that you understand what matters to them? Not that you agree with them or will do what they’re asking—but that you “get” them. And that you care.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, describes it this way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

But why should we do this?

My altruistic reply is that it helps build the world I want for us—one that values connection and respect over “winning.” My selfish answer is that if I can demonstrate that I’ve truly heard the other person, it greatly increases the chances that they’ll listen to me when it’s my turn to speak.

Honestly, I don’t care which reason you choose. Just do it.

OF COURSE THIS PRINCIPLE is easier named than lived. I’ve been teaching Collaborative Communication (also known as Nonviolent Communication or NVC) since 2007 and okay, I’ve got skills. But over and over, here’s what happens: I’m in the midst of a difficult conversation (extra points if I’m related to the other person) and I feel so raw and unsettled that I can’t locate my expertise. Solution: Step back and take a breath. Alternate scenario: I know EXACTLY how to defuse the situation—but I’m so angry and hurt that I’m completely unwilling to do it.

Here, my sane brain says, “Hold up. Show them you understand where they’re coming from.” And my freaked out rodent brain says, “Oh, hell no. I’m going to snark. I’m going to sneer. Best of all, I’m going to win this argument with logic and reason.”

Sane brain: “Right. And how often has that worked for you?”

Rat brain: “Exactly never. But I’m doing it anyway. It’s a stupid plan, but it’s my plan and I’m sticking with it.”

Sane brain: “Empathy could be nice.”

Rat brain: “What is this ‘empathy’ of which you speak? But really, who cares? ‘Scorched earth’ is an awesome policy.”

Sane brain: “I’m leaving now. I want a drink.”

In a situation like this, Collaborative Communication asks us to reach for care, to value the other person’s needs as much as our own. Not more than our own, but also, not less. To see the other person not as the enemy, but as a relatable human in pain. I fully support this concept. But when I’m under pressure, sometimes I can get there and a lot of times, I can’t.

LUCKY FOR ME, when I can’t access compassion, I can often achieve curiosity. I might be angry at the other person; I may even think I hate them. But some part of my deranged rat brain remains interested in what this person is doing. And that saves me—because while my heart has closed, my mind is still open for business. And in its sterile, nerdy way, my psyche wants to understand what’s happening.

Several years ago, a friend and I went for a walk, and stumbled into an argument that started small and then grew large. By the time we got back to our cars, we were both furious. Neither one of us was offering empathy because CLEARLY the whole problem was the other person’s fault. I was ready to bolt, but suddenly I saw how this was going to play out: We would get in our vehicles, slam the doors, drive away and never speak again. Once we parted, it was going to be too hard to regroup. The odds of losing face would be high and we’d both decide to just let it go. End of story and end of friendship.

I didn’t want that.

As usual, my rat brain rejected all calls for compassion; however it was grudgingly curious. Why was my so-called friend saying these ridiculous things? What could she possibly be thinking? Oh, right: What was she actually thinking?

Rat brain asked a few stilted questions. My friend replied no, no and eventually, YES.

AND I FINALLY got where she was coming from. In fact, it appeared she’d been trying to have my back. Too bad I had interpreted her support as bossy, intrusive and patronizing. Drats. I still felt bruised but the door to my heart opened a tiny sliver. Instead of reacting, now I could listen—and my friend responded in kind. We stood on the sidewalk in front of our cars and worked it out. No doors were slammed. We hugged. Victory.

When I’m upset, I can’t always access empathy or goodwill. But often I can get to a place of inquiry where I want to understand the other person. I can tell my snarky rat brain to shut up or take a hike—or at least get curious. And we all pull back from the edge.


LISA MONTANA came to conflict resolution from the business world where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. With Collaborative Communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonistic foes find common ground.

Lisa works with individuals, businesses and organizations around the country. She provides leadership and personal coaching, conflict resolution, skills sessions, organizational development, DEI, and facilitation of group meetings and decision-making.

In her private practice, Lisa’s clients value her ability to solve problems efficiently and discern core issues in complex situations. Her workshops help participants strengthen their communication skills in an engaging, interactive and supportive environment.

Lisa has been a trainer at Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC) since 2007. She also works with the Center for Efficient Collaboration (CEC). In addition, she’s been a lead trainer with a year-long mediation program based on Nonviolent Communication. And since 2013, she has taught conflict resolution at San Quentin State Prison.

Contact Lisa: Lisa@BayNVC.org

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Copyright ⓒ 2017, 2022 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission and attribution.