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How to Motivate Change in Your Clients with the ‘Curiosity Gap’

Five easy ways to open the mind to therapeutic change

Curiosity is a powerful motivational force.

“Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.”

– William Arthur Ward

The piquing of curiosity may be an underrated yet powerful strategy in therapy and coaching.

Early in my career an older gentleman, John, came in for therapy. He was lonely and sometimes a little depressed.

I noticed he talked about one subject above all else.

It seemed he was growing fond of a woman who worked in a store to which he delivered most days.

He was widowed and so was she. But they had more in common than this. She laughed at his jokes and seemed to like him. But something was really nagging away at John:

“How can I be sure she likes me enough to go out with me?!”

Prefer to watch instead?

What will they think?

John wanted surety in an ambiguous world where sureties are never really guaranteed. He feared that if he asked this woman out and she refused, “word would get out” and the other store workers would think he was creepy/terrible/a loser.

He was terrified at the thought of being gossiped about each day when he made his deliveries to this particular store.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked him.

Before we get to that, I want to talk about why and how we can recruit the power of curiosity to facilitate change within our clients.

What’s it all about?

Why? How? When? Who? What? Questions are themselves the result of our innate curiosity.

Early humans wanted to know the best ways to hunt animals, grow crops, map the stars, and cure the body. We felt an insatiable need to find out. Innate human curiosity was the springboard to philosophy, science, exploration, the arts, and all other fields of human development. Curiosity is what pushes us to learn and keeps us young.

Curiosity is such a powerful and central feature of being human. It would be strange, then, not to use it to benefit our clients. To kindle the fire, even if initially it may be little more than a tiny spark.

Curiosity is such a powerful and central feature of being human that it would be strange not to use it to benefit our clients. To kindle the fire, even if initially it may be little more than a tiny spark. Click to Tweet

Curiosity, a kind of open-minded expectancy, can align clients to therapeutic improvement and actually drive them toward that improvement.

And it’s useful to remember something.

Your clients are already curious

The pure fact that your client is coming to see you means on some level they are curious as to what you’ll offer, whether you can really help them. All you have to do, then, is build upon that curiosity.

Practitioners who use hypnosis know a lot about using curiosity as a way of guiding clients into therapeutic trance. Such openness to new experience and possibility is often so central to hypnotic inductions. Just what can your mind do? What is possible for you?

This openness and curiosity about one’s own therapeutic potential is often the first step towards a great belief that actually, yes! I can get better!

This is something I’ve long believed, but I was intrigued to see some recent research supporting this position.

Fortune cookies and stairwells

A psychological study found that curiosity can be used to help people change their behaviour to make healthier choices.1

The researchers were curious, I guess, to discover whether and how people’s behaviour changed when their curiosity was piqued. Over four experiments they found that curiosity can, indeed, drive people to make behavioural changes.

Dr Evan Polman, the study’s lead author, explained that creating a ‘curiosity gap’ can strongly motivate behaviour. He stated, “Piquing curiosity influences choices, steering individuals away from unhealthy temptations and toward healthier options.”

For instance, in one experiment, 71% of participants chose a plain ‘fortune cookie’ over a chocolate-covered, sugary one due to the promise of personal information inside. The drive to “know what this fortune cookie says about me!” overcame a sweet tooth.

Similarly, people were motivated by the promise of the secret to a magic trick or the answer to a trivia question. When questions were posed at the bottom of the stairs with the promise that the answer would be provided on the stairwell somewhere, there was a 9.8% increase in stairwell use.

Dr Polman emphasized that curiosity-based interventions such as these come at a minimal cost and can effectively promote positive actions.

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Clearly, curiosity is a motivational force. And we need our clients to be motivated.

Maybe you already use curiosity in your practice. In fact, I’m pretty sure you do, even if you hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. Maybe you even use some of the following strategies, but hopefully you’ll find a little something here to help you make the most of your clients’ curiosity.

Tip one: Express your curiosity.

The great Dr Milton Erickson once said, “I am very curious to discover what is possible.”

I will often express how curious I am about some idea or desire the client has.

With John I expressed, at some length, just how curious I was as to what he’d feel like if he never asked Sue, the woman he got on so well with, out. When he started to imagine that it made him feel sad and regretful.

“I wonder what you’d feel like, John, if in 10 years’ time you looked back having never taken the plunge.” I expressed that I really had no way of knowing how he’d feel if he never even tried. I wondered aloud how maybe knowing something bad was sometimes better than the “dull but continuous ache” of never finding out the truth of something at all.

I also expressed how curious I was to know how he’d feel if at least he tried.

My curiosity seemed to increase. I also expressed curiosity as to whether she would accept his invitation for a date or not.

I went on, almost ad nauseam, as to whether she would accept, whether she wouldn’t, whether people would talk about it, whether they would for a while then move on, whether it would be all they’d talk about, whether they’d be pleased if she accepted, and so on.

After a time, such to-ing and fro-ing can drive people to a kind of exasperated action – “Oh, for God’s sake, I just need to find out! No more ‘whether this or whether that’!”

Becoming sick of indecision can be a way of forcing a decision.

So simply wondering aloud and asking rhetorical Socratic questions can help build a sense of wanting to actually discover and grow.

We can also ask our clients direct curiosity-building questions.

Tip two: How will it be?

I’ve often used curiosity in therapy. When treating a spider phobia I might ask the client how they suppose their loved ones will react once they discover the client’s fear has gone without the client having told them.

How will their wider life generally be different?

With a drinker or smoker I might ask them what they imagine it’s going to feel like to no longer be preoccupied with these interloping substances. What will they be doing and thinking about instead, do they suppose?

We can, of course, be much more open ended than this.

Tip three: Notice something unexpected

People have a need to ‘switch off’ loops of expectancy. We want to know how the thrilling movie ends, who committed the murder in the crime novel, what the punchline is to the joke, and the solution to the mystery of where the heck we put the car keys!

I will sometimes task my clients to “notice something unexpected” after they have started sleeping really well again, or while calmly delivering a speech they’d been nervous about making, or over the first week of being a non-smoker. When we ask someone to notice something unexpected, we are piquing their curiosity and attaching satisfied curiosity to a therapeutic gain.

I might even add: “And this unexpected thing may be wonderful, or simply really good, or just something you’d never considered before… but be sure to notice it and write it down…”

I had one client who had been paralysed by fear of socializing. I helped her overcome the fear then asked her to notice something “nice and unexpected” at an upcoming social gathering.

She later reported she’d suddenly become aware of how “bright and beautiful” the colours seemed to be in the house she was in. I didn’t see that one coming.

Another client told me that the first time he saw a spider (after our work together) he started to run away through habit, before realizing he was actually no longer scared… and bursting into laughter at having run away!

Yet another client told me that in the supermarket, she just focused on the healthiest foods and it was “like the other unhealthy stuff wasn’t even there”… and so on. In each case, the client was intrigued by what they noticed.

Of course, the language we use can also increase curiosity in our clients.

Tip four: Use curiosity-building words and phrases

We’re often encouraged to build a sense of confidence by using certainties and definitive statements such as “You are fantastic. You will succeed!” and such like.

However, to build curiosity we can also artfully express not-knowingness.

You could pepper your language with words like maybe, perhaps, wonder, curious, interesting, and discover

You could use phrases such as:

I really don’t know just how you’re going to first notice that you’re becoming slimmer … maybe the soles of your feet will notice you’re becoming lighter before even your conscious mind does… or maybe the first sign will be something else entirely…”

“I wonder who’ll be the first to notice you coming out of that depression without you telling them. It might surprise you to discover who notices first… Maybe it will be your mother… but it might not be… It could be…”

So we’re building a sense of curiosity with perhaps, and maybe, and “I really don’t know yet” and “You really don’t know yet”…

We are using not (yet) knowing in the way we communicate and thereby attaching a sense of discovery to the preferred future state of the client.

I used all these kinds of phrases with John. How would he feel when he’d made up his mind to ask Sue out? Would he feel determined, scared but determined, happy he’d at last made a decision…? I really couldn’t tell him how he was going to feel, and how he was going to feel might even surprise him!

Notice I didn’t want to build up a sense that Sue would definitely say yes, rather a sense that it was fascinating neither of us knew at that moment in time.

He later told me he’d been surprised to suddenly feel a sense of “sweeping peace” when at last he’d decided to ask Sue out. And that once he’d decided, he “just had to know one way or the other”. Almost as if finding out was the aim, rather than her necessarily saying “yes” (which, of course, would be nice!).

Lastly, we can build up a sense of curiosity directly.

Tip five: Evoke a general sense of curiosity

We can evoke a sense of burning curiosity in our clients before attaching that sense of needing to make a discovery to the client’s therapeutic goals.

I might ask a client about a time they were really curious to discover something. Or, during hypnotic work, I might simply evoke a scenario of a child opening a gift, not knowing what the wrapping and box contains but needing desperately to find out.

I might ask the client to imagine being that child – what does that huge curiosity feel like? Or I might evoke seeing a magic trick done, or that feeling when you’ve forgotten something but feel you really want to recall it.

What does intense curiosity feel like in the stomach? In the hands? How do we know when we have an overriding curiosity about something… or someone?

With John I wanted him to be focused more on curiosity than on feeling Sue had to accept his invitation for a date. I wanted him to be more focused on finding an answer than the (‘right’) answer.

While upping his curiosity, I was sure to incorporate a sense of intrigue about how he’d manage if she said no. We explored ways he’d thrive even if she said no.

One day he found he just couldn’t not ask Sue out.

She said she’d love to go for a meal with him.

The next time I saw John, he asked me why he’d made such a fuss about asking her out in the first place.

I suggested he could be curious about that.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

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  1. Polman, E., Ruttan, R. L., & Peck, J. (2016). Using curiosity to increase the choice of “should” options. Paper Session, Aug, 4(11.11), 50.

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