When questions aren’t curious and how being pulled over showed me the difference
During our road trip from DC to New England this summer, my family was pulled over by a police officer in Connecticut. We knew the likely reason: my husband had just swerved into the left shoulder while trying to plug a phone into the power cord.
While no one’s ever glad to be pulled over, I did feel grateful to know that officers are on the road watching out for drivers’ safety.
But my appreciative attitude quickly shifted after we pulled to the side of the road, rolled down the window and were immediately greeted with frustration from the officer. "First of all," he demanded. “Why were you causing traffic in the left lane? And why did you swerve back there?”
My husband froze – what was he supposed to say? The questions sounded like accusations– like invitations to defend, which we know can easily lead to escalation. Luckily, my husband didn’t take it there, but the officer didn’t get any valuable information, either.
Hearing this exchange as someone who works with officers to bring curiosity into conflict amazed me. Had his remarks been framed with strategic curiosity instead of frustration, they would have qualified as curious questions targeted at my husband’s decision-making – the sort of skills at the core of Insight Policing.
But asked in an accusatory manner negated any curiosity – and with it, the opportunity to truly get the answer the officer was looking for.
During our trainings, we talk about how important it is to get curious, because curiosity opens lines of communication, eases tensions, and reveals critical information for effective problem solving.
To get curious, asking questions is key. But how we ask questions is critical.
A curiosity-based approach during our traffic stop would have led the officer to first verify what he noticed, and then ask his questions. Like this: “I saw you slow down in the left lane and swerve back there. What made you slow down and swerve?” That would have invited my husband to respond without defending and offer information about his actions that the officer could have used.
What this experience highlights is that questions alone are not sufficient to prevent escalation and manage conflict effectively. Questions only work when asked with curiosity – with an intent to understand, to connect, and to discover.
So next time you’re feeling frustrated or faced with someone who is, remember to set the stage for dialogue by verifying what you’ve noticed, and then getting curious by asking questions directed at feelings and decision-making. This will open lines of communication to prevent escalation and turn conflict into cooperation.
If you’d like to learn more about Insight Policing – get in touch to schedule a training session for 2023, or check out our virtual refresher trainings happening on Dec. 15 and Jan. 26. We’d love to have you join (or re-join) our community of curious law enforcement professionals.