How to Practice Compassionate Curiosity

Personal Development

1. Be Interested

Birds of the same feather flock together. We typically are interested in others who have something to offer us or have something in common with us. To be interested we need to notice the dirt path off the side of the four-lane highway of our lives. We need to look for peculiar things in people, things unlike us that draw our curiosity.

Jesus went out of His way to show interest in people across the divide. The most obvious occasion was His conversation with the woman at the well. He took His disciples on a journey through Samaria when typically, a rabbi and his Jewish followers would take a long way around. Jesus desired to connect with Samaritans. This must have seemed bizarre to His followers when they sat down at Jacob’s well outside of Sychar.

We are magnets for “likeness” but Jesus was a magnet for “differents.” God invites us to go where we ordinarily would not desire to go. To show interest in people we usually feel polarized against.
One of my neighbors is a fun fellow who isn’t afraid to share whatever urgent thought comes into his head. When I’m walking my dog, I always make it a point to stop at his house and say hello. He recently said, “If we legalized marijuana, we’d have fewer arrests.” This interested me. It’s not something I’d typically subscribe to. So, I said, “Tell me a bit more about that.” His reply was, “Why is a pastor interested in marijuana? Is the parish life hard on ya, Pastor?” Often when I find something different, rather than reacting in contempt or disgust, I move toward them with curiosity. Our points of difference can either be barriers or bridges. There is always something genuinely interesting about someone unlike you. Everyone has a story to be discovered.

2. Be Inquisitive

When we pause our reactions of attacking or avoiding, what’s next? Learn to ask questions. Questions might seem like a passive instrument, but in a hostile world, they are more like a pry-bar that opens the soul. When you find yourself about to make a statement, turn it into a question.7 For example, before stating, “This steak is really good” instead ask, “What makes this steak really good?” Then listen for answers or look for answers yourself. You’ll start to notice things you never did before. Do that with your encounters.

Sitting next to a stranger, sipping on a drink at our local watering hole, I glanced at the fellow sitting next to me enjoying his juicy burger. He said, “This is a great bar.” I asked him why he thought it was a great bar. He seemed a bit caught off guard by the question. Awkwardly he responded with, “Well I’m from out of town, and it’s hard to find a good place to watch the game sometimes.” Typically banter in a bar is kept strictly to sports and shouting TVs. I asked him what brought him to our city. “I’m here for therapy,” he sheepishly responded. “Therapy has been beneficial in my life; how has it been helpful in yours?” He turned to me directly, slightly offended, and said, “Really dude, you want to know about my past? I doubt it!” At this point, I felt the stiff arm. So I took one more attempt and said, “Sure, I’m all ears.” In the midst of blasting TVs and craft beer, he let slip out, “I’m getting therapy because I’m a registered sexual offender.” Over the next two hours, we found ourselves sharing our regrets, our need for change, and our shame about our choices in life. We missed the entire game we came to watch. A momentous divine exchange occurred. At one point he said, “To most people I’m repulsive.” I imagine Jesus sitting close to people who by all cultural standards are repulsive but not being repulsed.

Asking questions is more transformative than giving answers. That does not mean that answers are irrelevant. We find answers along the way. But first, we must create a pathway to walk upon. Curious questions create the space for something new to emerge, something unpredictable, something new to arise between us; all kinds of possibilities that did not exist before.

3. Be Interpersonal

Too often we are preoccupied with our to-do list, checking our phones, and mulling over better ways to spend our time. Sure, we are physically present, but our attention span is in another universe.8 With regularity someone asks me a question, I begin to squeak out some words, and they are already glancing at their phone or disinterested, looking around the room.

To be interpersonal we need to take our five senses—taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound—captive in the moment of conversation. Jesus uses all five senses to be present with others. He uses the sense of taste, purposely feasting with others, picking up the reputation of being a glutton. Using food for more than nourishment but connection. He uses the sense of sight, looking intently for a woman that touches the edge of His robe. He does not accept the cursory answer the disciples give Him: “You’re in a crowd, what do You expect?” (see Luke 8:45). Jesus used the sense of touch when people brought Jesus a deaf man. Jesus healed the man, of course, but interestingly, by putting His fingers in the man’s ears and touching the man’s tongue. Jesus also uses smell; coming upon the gravesite of His friend Lazarus, Martha says, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible” (John 11:39 NLT). He enters into the stench of suffering and loss. Finally, Jesus uses the sense of sound, listening to the cries of the demon-possessed man cutting himself with stones. The disciples probably wanted to run, but Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?” (Mark 5:9).

To be interpersonal we bring all our senses to a singular place at a precise moment. Our bodies struggle with undivided attention. As one who has diagnosed ADHD, holding my attention in one place does not come naturally. What has been remarkable is that over time, because of the goal of compassionate curiosity, I have been able to retrain my senses incrementally: expressing warmth in a firm hug, making eye contact, sitting still, asking careful questions, listening intently, and verbalizing what I am hearing.

4. Be Indistinct

It is fascinating that Jesus doesn’t preach three-point sermons that lay out His airtight case for why He is right. He hardly puts the philosophical smack down on His doubters. Many of Jesus’ detractors are looking for a verbal sparring match, coming at Him with accusations and arguments. Instead of retorts and well-defended statements, He meets their assaults with more and more questions and stories. How frustrating? Right!

In Mark 4:10–11 it says, “When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.’” I’d probably have been with the disciples on this one. “Jesus, why are You doing this? You’re telling stories but nobody is getting Your point.” The disciples are frustrated by His subjective parable-telling methods.9 Why not just make it plain-speak? It has always puzzled me. Why does Jesus seemingly indicate He doesn’t want to be clear?
I have a working theory on this. Parables (stories) serve as a kind of curiosity-creating technique. Parables tuck the treasure beneath the surface, out of the reach of those who seek knowledge, not transformation. Some people will listen, and it sparks questions. If Jesus told it straight, there is no exploration required. He is enticing listeners to tune their ears to a different frequency.
I suspect if the disciples had not asked Jesus about the parables, He may not have explained them. The subterraneous meaning of the kingdom of God is found through the gateway of being inquisitive. Could this be where it starts? Those who ask Jesus for further explanation are the ones to whom the deeper meaning is revealed.

If Jesus were walking the earth today, He might be called elusive, ambiguous, and hard to pin down. He’d probably be unwilling to provide concise sound bites for public consumption on CNN or Good Morning America. Matthew’s gospel records the peculiar way in which Jesus speaks to injustice and unrighteousness: “He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets” (12:19). These words point to the pervading calmness of the way of Jesus, which stood out in marked contrast to the wrangling of Jewish scribes, the violence of Roman officers, and the proclaiming prophets in the streets.

As you are conversing with those you might be polarized with, resist the urge to be clear and combative. Yeah, you heard me right. Is it ever okay to be ambiguous? I believe it is, because Jesus was, quite often. Is it ever okay to come across unclear? I believe it is, because Jesus sometimes was. Is it ever okay to not give a Yes or No to the “is it a sin” question? Yes, because often the history of that question is so convoluted with agendas. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says, “We cannot understand each other’s Yes or No answers because there is a world of antagonism sitting atop them.”
Being indistinct is not a dodge nor is it a slippery slope. To be indistinct we are extending space for us to see each other, explore each other, and understand each other. The work of connection takes priority rather than efficiency of clarity. Does this mean we don’t hold convictions? I do. You do. Of course we do. Convictions are not the problem; our postures with each other are. In order to build the bridge of listening to each other, relearn how to stay still and stay curious. To be indistinct is to be at peace not being heard, seen, or acknowledged for the opinions I hold. This is an act of humility. There is a time for clarifying your points and positions, but it is a mistake to do this before building a relational bridge through compassionate curiosity.

In hotly divided times, where fear is the primary emotion between us, the act of listening is the first thing to get pitched in the dumpster. It may seem like a weak weapon in the face of monsters, but don’t underestimate the power of compassionate curiosity to dismantle the antagonism between us.

Excerpted from Love over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, and Healing our Polarized World by Dan White Jr. (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

Dan White Jr. coplanted Axiom, an International Christian Community in Syracuse, New York. He is also a strategist with the V3 Movement, coaching cohorts from around the country through a nine-month missional system. Dan is the author ofLove over FearSubterranean and coauthor of the award-winning The Church as Movement. He is married to Tonya, dad to Daniel and Ari, and can be found enjoying conversations at Salt City Coffee. Learn more at​.

7.  Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 82–84.
8.  Ibid.
9.  Ibid.
10.  Josephus Flavius, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub, 1980), 222–23.
11.  Hauerwas, Matthew, 132–33.​

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