A Practical New Year Resolution for 2023: Don’t be a know it all!

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

By early January, gym memberships soar, fad diets take off, the quest for a “beach body” begins… only to be mostly over by mid February. The reality is, most new year resolutions don’t last long, and are somewhat shallow, silly, and self centered. While working toward a healthy lifestyle is important, too often most resolutions are individually focused. As we start 2023, you might consider focusing differently this year by looking at your connections. Not surprisingly, recent research on happiness suggests that one of the keys to a happier, more satisfying life is deep relationships.

So, if you want to work on something that will benefit the people who are important to you, not to mention increasing your connections, you might start by working on not being a “know it all”. “Know it alls” think they can put people in categories, think they understand people prematurely before actually listening carefully, assume they understand better than most, and as a result have limited relationships. Their pictures of others, and even of themselves, are frequently wrong because of their assumption that they “know” and, as a result, they do not ask a lot of questions.

This reductionistic thinking brings to mind the “I/it – I/thou” concept of the late Jewish mystic, Martin Buber. When we make someone into an “it” (he’s cold, she’s too emotional, they’re unintelligent, unspiritual, Republican, Democrat, etc), we see them in small categories that limit nuance and complexity and too easily reduce people to less than human. In contrast, Buber talks about “I/thou relationships” where we are curious and experience the other through a more nuanced lens. In the early dating stage, couples tend to listen carefully in order to understand more deeply. Sadly, over time, the curious listening shifts as they assume they “know” the other. This limits intimacy, mystery, and depth as their assumption that they “know” reduces their partner to their limited (probably unflattering) picture of them.

Growth, whether in marriage, parenting, or friendship assumes a stance of not knowing and being genuinely curious about the people in your life in order to  know them more deeply. The great mystic Meister Eckhard talked about “the cloud of unknowing”. Ironically, that stance can lead to deeper conversation and deeper relationships. This is a discipline that requires turning off the electronics, asking questions, not being in a hurry or finishing each other’s sentences, or being each other’s armchair psychologist. It means, rather than being a know it all, assume you don’t really know and practice curiosity.

While the old saying “curiosity killed the cat” suggests that curiosity can be dangerous, research suggests that curiosity deepens relationships. The author of one research study, Todd Kashdan, concludes that, “Being interested is more important in cultivating a relationship than being interesting”. He adds that when we are curious, people share more, and in return ask more questions leading to deeper levels of intimacy. Further, another study suggests that people who practice curiosity are actually far better at reading people.

Having said all of this, who do you know that actually practices curiosity and asks the right type of questions that lead you to share more about yourself? In reality, there may not be a lot of people who come to mind. I am often shocked when people slow down and ask questions that reflect their curiosity about my life. Genuine curiosity about others, and curiosity about self too, is a rare gift to give and to get. The late Fredrick Buechner puts it beautifully in saying, “Listen to your life…” and try to listen to the lives of others by practicing active curiosity.