The Power of Curiosity for Equine Veterinarians

Curiosity can open doors to others—and ourselves—and give us space to better address stressful situations.

Three kids aged 5 and 8 examining a roman snail in the grass.
Curiosity is a trait often associated with children, but it can help adults support themselves and their relationships with others. Getty Images

Curiosity is a trait we often associate with children, and maybe even children who ask too many questions. So, you might be wondering why there’s an article, clearly written for adults, about the value of this trait.

As veterinarians, we have the opportunity to leverage our curiosity to support our ability to diagnose tough cases, develop tailored treatment plans, help us build strong and effective relationships with clients and—perhaps most importantly—support our own well-being. It’s the potential of curiosity to support ourselves and our relationships with others that this article will explore.

Curiosity can help us suspend judgment, which can influence our perspective on our interactions. There is also the ability of curiosity to effectively manage conflict and decrease distress caused by tough personal interactions.

Let’s begin by creating a shared understanding of what curiosity is and isn’t.

What is Curiosity?

Curiosity can be defined as a “desire to know,” which can then be further parsed into intellectual curiosity—where interest leads to inquiry—and nosiness, where one has an “inquisitive interest in others’ concerns.”

It’s critical to appreciate that both types of curiosity result in inquiry because curiosity involves a recognition that there might be information that we do not already possess that is of value in a given situation. In turn, the inquiries or questions we then ask support relationship-building through shared knowledge, demonstrating interest and paving a path toward empathy.

Curiosity and Relationships

In general, relationship-building is a process through which two people get to know each other through communication, which contributes to shared knowledge and shared experiences.

At the start of relationships with clients, it’s easy to be curious or at least appear curious, because there is so much we don’t know about the horse and client. Initially, we focus on gathering the necessary information required to learn about the client-horse partnership and the horse’s health. We then leverage what we have learned about them to create meaningful and effective diagnostic and treatment plans.

Over time, due to the nature of equine veterinarian-client relationships—as well as the sheer volume of time spent together—we often glean a more personal understanding of the client. Some might consider this to be a byproduct of a working relationship, and as such, undervalue it. Others might worry about conversations of a more personal nature being “nosy” and unprofessional.
There is a third option: Some of the more personal information we learn about clients—including and in addition to their relationships with their horses—further aids us in providing effective patient care.

In human medicine, much of this information is considered to fall into the category of social determinants of health. These might not be a direct disease-causing factor, but just the same, they do influence the health of the patient. These might include poverty, lack of a stable income, health insurance, race and gender identity.

Just as there is value in human healthcare providers knowing and recognizing which social determinants of health might be impacting their patients, there is value in us seeking to understand and appreciate the deeper context of clients’ experiences so we can provide them with responsive care.

To this point, leveraging curiosity to work toward deeper understanding of clients is important as we strive to provide optimal care to the horses and meet the needs and expectations of the clients.

We also need to consider how to remain curious. Over time, as our knowledge of a given client and patient grow, it’s easy to drop the curiosity and coast on the knowledge that we have. This is a risky thing to do.

Each of us is an incredibly complex being, with our lives constantly changing in big and small ways. When we stop being curious, we put the relationship we’ve developed in jeopardy. We also become more prone to harsh judgment, making assumptions and practicing in a way that might not best serve the patient. At the same time, this judgment is likely to damage our relationship with the client, which in turn will have impacts on client satisfaction and practice success.

A veterinarian inspects a horse's knee.
Curiosity can prompt a deeper knowledge with clients, resulting in better care of their horses. Getty Images

Dealing with Conflict

Curiosity can help us deal with conflict, something we all experience daily. Curiosity helps remove or diminish barriers and enables us to reach effective management of the differences that led to the conflict.

Frequently, when we experience interpersonal conflict with others, we knowingly or unknowingly make assumptions about that person, his or her position and what the potential paths forward together are. When we don’t question these assumptions, we have no need for curiosity because we are confident in our assessment of the situation. In turn, we fail to seek additional information that would help us better understand the position of the other person, as well as our own. This can result in the impression or belief that we are more different or the conflict is more serious than it actually is.

Further, we might ascribe negative intent to the other person (i.e., being malicious or difficult on purpose) when in fact the conflict was based in miscommunication and misunderstanding by both parties. When these “misses” go unchallenged, empathy is often blocked, which perpetuates judgment and limits paths to forward progress, partnership and conflict management.

Leveraging curiosity can help mitigate the myriad of pitfalls discussed above through enhancing understanding of the other person, facilitating ascribing positive intent, fostering empathy and diminishing judgment of the other person and his or her actions.

Curiosity Turned Inward

Let’s now look at how to leverage curiosity to support ourselves, as there is also tremendous power in this practice.

When we were young and many things about our adult lives had yet to be determined, it was easier to spend time fantasizing about what our lives would be like if we proceeded down any number of paths laid out before us. (If you’re having trouble imagining that, think back to what you might have done if you hadn’t gotten into veterinary school.)

As we get older and certain decisions and aspects of our lives are behind us, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and close ourselves off to curiosity and possibility. Further, we are more vulnerable to the influence of societal norms and expectations, which can add to the difficulty of using our imaginations.

To the extent that human beings crave certainty, some of this decrease in possibilities might be adaptive. However, it’s also important to consider how a decrease in curiosity can limit our ability to solve complex problems and to understand the experiences and perspectives of others, as well as to navigate both interpersonal and internal conflict. As we noted when considering the use of curiosity when engaging with others, the primary benefit of practicing curiosity is that it encourages us to question the information and knowledge we have. Then it motivates us to seek out additional resources, information and perspectives.

When we ask questions and remain open to truly listening and engaging with the answer and learning about the other person’s experience and situation, then we begin to situate ourselves effectively so that we can move forward. Similarly, this can happen within ourselves when we seek additional information, remain open to the lessons that information contains, and are willing to adjust our behavior based on it.

A veterinarian talks with a horse owner while they stand next to a chestnut horse.
Curiosity allows us to engage differently with ourselves and others, as well as obtain more concrete sources of information. iStock

Take-Home Message

Curiosity allows us to engage differently with ourselves and others, as well as more concrete sources of information. It is easy to see how this type of practice can support solving complex problems—with curiosity helping us to better understand the problem, as well as potential avenues of working through it to a variety of solutions.

In closing, let’s look at some practical suggestions for how to embrace curiosity in our day-to-day lives.

1. Take a moment to question assumptions. Look for certainty in your thoughts and question whether it’s warranted. For instance, when we say or think “I know…” about someone else, that’s often a good time to begin to question ourselves. How do we “know”? Why are we so certain? Is there a way to confirm our thinking? This can lead us to look for answers that help us confirm or reject the knowledge we have and creates opportunity for next steps to be taken.

2. Ask yourself what other reasons there might be for the behavior you are seeing. We all tell ourselves stories in our heads about others as well as ourselves, and these stories can be quite convincing. Unfortunately, much of the time these stories are more fiction than non-fiction, being comprised of series of judgements and assumptions.

There’s no need to beat ourselves up for this; it’s common and part of the shortcuts our brain takes to help us get through each day. However, questioning these stories—particularly when involved in a high-stake situation or when the issue doesn’t start sorting itself out as we might have wanted—is important and can support constructive next steps. Those steps include seeking out more information and increased compassion for ourselves and others.

3. Create space! When we are stressed, our body’s neurophysiology makes it harder to embrace curiosity! When we’re threatened—and stress is a type of threat—our body devotes energy into preparing to physically respond. This is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. For us to be able to access the parts of our brain that support curiosity, we need to be managing our stress successfully. This can look like intentionally giving ourselves time away from a given situation to allow ourselves to calm down and gain perspective. It might also look like engaging in other self-care practices, such as journaling, meditation or physical exercise.

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