curious conversations

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Curious Advantage compass logo
August 26, 2021

Jacqui Brassey is Director of Enduring Priorities Learning and Global Learning Leadership team member at Mckinsey & Company, adjunct professor at IE University and research fellow at Vu Amsterdam. She is the co-author of Advancing Authentic Confidence Through Emotional Flexibility with Prof. Dr. Nick van Dam and Prof. Dr. Arjen van Witteloostuijn.

Curiosity regulates our emotions

I’m a researcher of neuroscience in organizations. I’m a confidence researcher. I study emotional flexibility. I study the brain. Curiosity is a way or a technique to regulate emotions, because if you observe something with curiosity, if you open up and you explore different possibilities, you become less defensive, you can actually accept that there are different possibilities at the end of a process. You go from a tunnel vision to an open mind.

You also have the opportunity to take a pause if you use curiosity. When you take a pause, you can actually make different decisions. So, that’s how I use it in the work and also in the research that we do.

The opposite of curiosity can actually cause you stress because then you think there’s only one possible way, then you likely set yourself up for failure. Often, there’s a judgement coming up, and you think, ‘Well, if I don’t get that done perfectly, then I fail.’ If you use curiosity, you stay open, and you think, ‘Well, I can choose this path. I can explore, and whatever outcome, it’s fine because I can learn from it. Maybe what I initially thought was the best path is not. Maybe there’s a better path.’

I can share an example from my own experience. I used to set myself up for failure in business meetings. Actually, I also talk about my own confidence crisis at a TED Talk a few years ago. My habit was basically that I had to be perfect for a meeting. If I had to meet with senior leadership, I had to prepare perfectly. When I then got in the meeting, I had to have everything, all the answers to all the questions that possibly came up. So, I always felt like the spotlight was on me, and every move I made was seen. Then on top of it, if I was asked a question that I didn’t know, I would completely feel like I failed because I told myself that I hadn’t prepared well enough.

What I started to do in moments that I felt I would get stuck (and freeze), is use curiosity in those moments to observe what was around me and also what problems we were really solving. I would use curiosity for example to see what colours of shirts people were wearing or what was happening in the room. I would connect with what matters most in the moment (which was not me but the problem we were solving). That took the spotlight off me, and actually puts more of my attention in the room. You engage also part of the brain that helps you then down regulate your emotions and your stress.

Curiosity is an emotion regulation technique and also closely related to a tool in our book called reframing. You engage your executive thinking part of your brain, so that the part of your brain that helps you stay in control, but also helps you stay present and helps you to think calmly, and being in control of the situation, and logically, explore what’s going on in the moment. If you explore more options and allow these options to be there, you feel safer, when you feel safer, your stress levels go down.

Being authentic gives us confidence

True confidence or authentic confidence is all about becoming comfortable with discomfort. Connecting with what’s really important to you, and then taking clear decisions, taking conscious decisions that you want to move towards what is important to you. The authenticity is all about being okay with being uncomfortable in the moment.


An important principle is self-authoring and co-authoring with others. Central to using curiosity is postponing your own judgements and postponing your own way of looking at the world and thinking there’s only one way that is right. The beauty of collaborating with so many other people and teams and organisations is that there’s a lot of rich information and rich insights that can be leveraged. Using the curiosity to see what is really happening in the moment and say, ‘That’s interesting, let’s explore this a bit further. Let’s postpone judgement and let’s create the space to see what happens.’ That’s when the magic can happen.

At the individual level, of course, you need to allow yourself the curiosity to not know the answer. If we want this to happen, then we also need to give people the space to make mistakes, and sometimes go down a rabbit hole and actually encourage that it is better to make a few mistakes and never get through the answer at all. It has everything to do with creating safety for people. That’s at the core of neuroscience as well. I won’t go into technical detail, but there’s a well-known concept called Polyvagal theory (which explains the central role of the Vagus nerve) that talks about the importance of feeling safe for well-being and performance. Till recently it has not been applied to organisations yet, but I started to introduce this more broadly in my work. Safety is very important for this to work. The moment you don’t feel safe, your brain and body lock down, and curiosity is not so easy anymore. Curiosity, however, can be a technique to avoid total lockdown and contribute to staying calm and feeling safe.

Harness acceptance

The big eye opener for me in my work, which is at the core of all of the practises we describe in our book, is about openness. An important part of openness is ‘acceptance,’ it’s almost about how you can go with whatever life gives you and how can you let it be and find a way to accept that.

Another big eye opener for me was about facing difficult situations. We have this saying in Dutch which roughly translates as ‘the soup is never eaten as hot as it is served.’ It means when you face difficult things, actually, it’s never as challenging as you thought it would be.

Curiosity is at the heart of emotion regulation and acceptance and commitment training, which at its turn has been shown to actually lead to better well-being and performance.

Often our first response to something that makes us feel discomfort is to want the pain or discomfort to go away. That’s just how we deal with it. It’s an understandable reaction. We just ignore it, or we keep stressing about it.

However, by being authentic and curious about it, we can learn to embrace it. This will help us to reduce the pain or discomfort and it will help us to continue to live our life and focus on the things that truly matter. It can be magic if you’re authentically interested in it.

The Curious Advantage is an exploration of the behaviour of curiosity and its central role in the digital age, taking the widest possible exploration of things curious—historical, contemporary, neuro-scientific, anthropological, behavioural and business.

Curiosity has profound implications for organisations, leaders and individuals inhabiting the digital reality.  The Curious Advantage provides pragmatic tools and case studies and makes the case for how curiosity is the greatest driver of value in the new digital age. Curiosity is at the heart of the skills required to successfully navigate our digital lives when all futures are uncertain.

The Curious Advantage introduces the 7C’s of Curiosity model—a useful tool for anyone wanting to lead a curious organisation or who wants to challenge themselves to be actively curious.

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