Weaponizing Curiosity

7 min read

Up to now, we have spoken about curiosity in a very positive way, and with all coins, there are two sides. Let us take a moment to explore what happens when it becomes weaponized against you.

The weaponization of curiosity can come from anywhere. It might be a patronizing co-worker, a senior manager, or even a brash salesperson; the common theme is that they use questions under the guise of curiosity to elevate their position and to trap you in a line of thinking. No matter the situation, no one likes to be on the receiving end of this weaponization. It almost always leaves a bad taste about the interaction and the individual.

Here are a few of the rules I live by when it comes to the dark side of curiosity. 

Rule #1 – Only use it for good!

Humans have an incredibly fine-tuned, proficient “bullshit meter.” The biggest mistake we can make is to underestimate that in another person. If you believe you are outsmarting or pulling one over on them with your skilled questions, you risk them walking away with a gut feeling that something just isn’t right. Even if they don’t know what it is, the risk is that they associate this uncomfortable sensation with you and either avoid you altogether or are reluctant to interact with you. 

Rule #2 – Ignore the Psychology of Persuasion at Your Own Risk

There are numerous psychological triggers that marketers, salespeople, and everyday people employ to get others to act in a certain way. To be on the lookout for weaponized curiosity, it’s essential to be aware of these principles.

In Robert B. Cialdini’s seminal work “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion,” he explains some foundational human principles that can influence our behaviour. These include Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity.

What these principles have in common is how easily they can be used in our daily communication to become almost ubiquitous. This in no way should diminish the power they hold as tools to influence us to behave in a way that may not be in our best interest.

When you find yourself conversing with someone using a weaponized way of questioning, here are a few things to watch out for.

One of the most insidious tactics individuals might deploy is the art of reciprocity. Imagine someone sharing a tidbit of personal information with you, seemingly out of goodwill. Your natural instinct might be to reciprocate, sharing a piece of yourself in return. Beware of this. It’s not merely an exchange of anecdotes; it’s a strategy designed to pry more out of you than they give or gain information they can weaponize against you in the future. #redflag 

Consider moments when someone firmly pushes you to commit to a stance or decision. There’s a gravity where you may feel ‘overly committed,’ which ripples into your future actions and decisions. Be cautious if someone steers you into such a corner, especially before you have all the necessary information. This tactic can be dangerous regarding your ability to take in new information and adjust your position accordingly. In essence, by making you a prisoner of your own declarations, they can control your future choices.

I also encourage you to be wary of individuals who present situations painted with broad strokes of social consensus. They might describe scenarios where everyone appears to have a consistent point of view, aiming to sway your judgment. It’s an age-old pressure of conforming to the majority – a trait helpful for our early ancestors, but not so much now. And remember, it often requires personal courage and conviction to stand against the tide, especially when innovation or a novel approach is required. Recognize when someone might be setting you up to get a pre-determined answer they want.

Social proof is another principle to keep in mind. As social creatures, we want to like and be liked. Research has shown that we are more prone to agreeing with those we like and those who are similar. But it’s crucial to distinguish between like and trust. As discussed in my last article, “The Imposter’s Paradox,” creating psychological safety is paramount when setting people up to be their best and to trust. Genuine trust, built over time and experience, should not be conflated with the fleeting warmth of a casual acquaintance. An affable demeanour should not be an automatic gateway to your trust. Always question why you trust someone: Is it because of their proven reliability or because they have a friendly demeanour? If I had to choose, I would rather trust someone than like them

Authority can be a powerful tool of persuasion. For example, in a corporate landscape, you might find yourself in situations where someone in a position of power attempts to steer the conversation, leveraging their rank. While their points might be valid, it’s always essential not to be dissuaded from questioning them or having a different opinion. It’s okay to dissent if you genuinely feel another direction is more suitable. Please think about psychological safety and if you feel “safe” to dissent, if not, curiosity and questioning may be manipulated against you. 

Rule #3 – Slow Things Down

​​Whenever you sense the above situations, remember that you have permission to pause and reflect. A powerful countermeasure to a potential misuse of curiosity is to employ the same tool thoughtfully. You guessed it – that means start posing questions in return.

Remember, though, that the goal isn’t to outmaneuver them in their own game but to harness your own genuine curiosity. Use it to seek clarity, allow yourself to process the unfolding dialogue, and discern whether the individual is misusing their inquisitiveness.

Maintaining a keen awareness of your emotional and cognitive responses in such encounters is crucial. If you’re ever questioning the genuineness of the interaction or feel an instinctual unease, that’s a cue to be cautious. Those feelings can indicate that the situation might not be as straightforward or genuine as it appears.

While it’s comforting to believe that most people harbour good intentions, especially for their team members, it’s equally essential to stay vigilant. There’s always the off chance that someone might have a hidden agenda.

Stay Curious!

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