Monday, January 2, 2012

Disinterested Interest

The state of not being influenced by personal involvement in something; impartial.

Having or showing no feeling of interest; indifferent.

Over the holidays, I had the remarkable experience of observing dozens of people whom I rarely get to see or rarely get to see outside a given context such as work. I was amazed by the number of people who seemed to have no real interest in the those around them, or for that matter, in anything that didn't involve some form of consumption (e.g, eating, buy, listening to, or watching).

I sit quietly with coworkers at a corporate holiday party or with family members at the kitchen counter waiting for anyone to say something significant or to ask a question. Outside the standard exchanges of pleasantries, references to the weather, rhetorical questions and inside jokes, nada. They seem positively bored. So, I turn to the person to my right or left and ask a question.

I do this a lot and I'm pretty good at it. In no time, I can discover and excavate topics that spark a person's interest. Seat me at a dinner table with a bunch of silent strangers and before you know it, they're conversing vociferously. It's easy, really. You don't have to know what to say. You don't have to cast spells or recite incantations. All you have to do is to be curious about people and what interests them. (Note, the them part is significant.)

When you're curious, questions come easily.

When Questions Don't Work
I explain the "ask curious questions" concept to my seventeen-year-old nephew Matt, a creative and thoughtful young man whom many would characterize shy. He says, "I tried it, but people don't really say much."

After explaining that you want to avoid questions that solicit a yes-or-no answer, I ask him to give me some examples of questions that don't work. As Matt shares his questions, I notice a theme. His curiosity is biased by what interests him. He asks questions, but they all solicit answers that he would find interesting or helpful.

Matt starts out with a general question such as "What do you enjoy most about your work?" However his follow up questions are directed by something in the response that sparks his own interest. This works fine when you share common interests. Otherwise, the questions start to feel like you have an ulterior motive (which you do). You end up directing the responder into areas in which she has no interest and fizzle, fizzle, fizzle, the conversation dies.

It's a different story with my twenty-one-year-old nephew Ryan who is smart, athletic and outgoing. He has no problem speaking up or expressing himself. However, his questions aren't very effective.

After reviewing the avoidance of yes-no questions, Ryan opens with a more general and open-ended one. Like Matt, his follow-up questions tend to be biased by his own interests. However, Ryan has another tool to derail the conversation. Certain responses to his questions trigger something in Ryan that results in his launching into his own story of a similar experience. In a flash, the roles have changed and he's no longer asking questions.

Searching for Clues
On Thursday, my son Luke, his wife Sarah and their sons Jack (3 years) and Casey (3 months) drove out from Boston for a visit. Over the past couple of years, Luke has gone from a nominal state of being bored to one of being intensely interested and curious.

To be sure, the origins of his curiosity and interest stem back to self-interest or more precisely, self-preservation. Finding himself in the role of a young husband and father working a dead-end job did a lot to motivate interest. Over time his interests have become disinterested. What began as a way to make some more money and get ahead at work has now blossomed into insatiable curiosity about market analysis, data mining, and software. He now easily loses himself in the process of learning completely forgetting why he set out to learn something.

As I prepare dinner, Jack (my three-year-old grandson) comes to me looking for a flashlight. When I ask him why he wants one, he tells me, "I'm looking for clues."

I say, "Clues to what?"

Jack looks at me curiously and says, "I'm looking for clues."

As I prepare dinner, I watch Jack as he slowly climbs the stairs to the second floor, carefully inspecting each step. He jumps onto the couch and leans over the back to see what lies behind it. He crawls on hands and knees to look beneath it. He opens and closes doors. He shakes and wriggles anything that might be loose. He looks for clues.

Later Luke walks up to me with two long screws and a small piece of crown molding. The screws are ones specially made for my piano. They lock the action in place. I'd misplaced them ages ago.

The crown molding is a small piece that sits on the inside wall of an opening between the stair well and the living room, one I never noticed before, even the previous week when I'd set out to fasten any loose molding.

Jack's disinterested interest in "clues" led him to find things I'd completely missed during my interested searches.

Happy Monday,

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