Do Talk With Strangers: Learning From Those Who Don’t Belong

August 1, 2001

In this issue:

Newsbrief: A New Evolving Global Governance


More Newsbriefs: The Presidio Dialogues Hosts New Web Site

Next Month: Who Me? Pinning the Blame on Everyone But Me


A New Global Governance is Already Happening

Mark Satin, Editor for the Radical Middle newsletter, sees “global governance” as already underway as an “increasingly transparent and accountable world system” – not as a dominating force by any group of governements or corporations. His optimism is based partially on the fact that national governments are sharing more and more of their power with IGOs, TNCs, CSOs and other groups so that something “genuinely new on Earth” is evolving due to the need for these various factions to dialogue with each other. And all of this appears to be happening outside the awareness of the media, who still focus on the chest-thumping antics of Bush and other “leaders” who seem to think they are still “in control.” For more see Radical Middle.



[This month’s editorial is a follow-up to the July ’02 column in which I addressed “forgetting organizations” (see Archives]

Many children are taught never to talk with strangers, a practice followed by concerned parents after a few incidents of child abductions and molestations made the newswires a few generations ago. I am old enough to remember when national campaigns were waged telling parents that this was the responsible thing to do. And they did, in massive numbers. After all, who wants to see any harm come to their child. However, like most reactions that are fear-based, society has paid a steep price for this conditioning we’ve imposed on ourselves. We can call it the “great disconnect” or something fancier, but this fear of strangers has contributed to some of the isolation we all feel these days.

As I walk the streets of San Francisco on a daily basis (some have called me an “urban hiker” which sounds a bit too fancy a name for simply getting exercise every day), I am amazed by how few people will make eye contact with me. I can see their fear of engagement – fear of connecting with another human – even if just to say “hello” without missing a stride. People seem so intent on the cracks in the sidewalk, the eaves of a building, or their Walkman radio or CD player – ANYTHING but acknowledging another human being coming into their proximity.

We have become a society that fears strangers. We’ve been trained to do this since we were old enough to play outdoors and now, as adults, we avert our eyes anytime there’s the potential for making eye contact with someone we don’t know. “Be wary of strangers!” screams our thinking, and alarms go off.

In sharp contrast to this “don’t talk to strangers” warning emblazoned in our minds at such early ages, I suggest that there is now a time when you actually want to seek out “strangers” and talk with them.

By definition, a stranger is someone foreign, not known before, not seeming to belong in a certain place. Someone could be considered “strange” if they don’t fit in or conform. So when might a stranger be an asset? An obvious asset for organizations: learning from diverse people from diverse cultures – people who are different, or strangers. We made a strong argument for this in the anthology that Angeles Arrien and I created – Working Together (Berrett-Koehler, 2001) which focuses on making differences into learning opportunities rather than treating them as hurdles to be overcome. But what about organizational change on a large scale?

When we look at trying to change our business organizations – to make lasting and meaningful change – we often hire consultants, right?

Now I have many friends who work as consultants so I don’t mean any disrespect, BUT… a major hunk of the value a consultant brings to a company is that they are indeed “strangers” – they are “foreign” and not previously known. Most of the value that they add is that they can see things that people within the organization – those who have worked with the organization enough to become “familiar” and “known” – cannot see. The fact that the consultants are strangers is often their primary asset, allowing them to see what is not working far more clearly.

One of the dangers of using the same consultants over and over again is that they become familiar to the people in the organization, and lose their “stranger-ness.” They become part of the system they are trying to change. Large systems rarely change from within. Some outside influence is almost always at the center of major change or real transformations in companies. It could be the market, the economy, a competitor, or any number of external factors. But organizations rarely go through significant change without some “stranger” stirring up the pot, rocking the ship, rattling the cage.

So, if you are really wanting to create radical change – change that will be truly transformative and lasting – DO talk to strangers!



The World’s First Professor of Intellectual Capital?

Former Skandia senior executive Leif Edvinsson has been appointed Professor of Intellectual Capital for Sweden’s University of Lund, possibly the first such appointment in the world; Edvinsson is also the author of the 1997 book Intellectual Capital: Realizing Your Company’s True Value by Finding Its Hidden Brainpower.

The Presidio Dialogues Hosts New Web Site

The Presidio Dialogues which John hosts each month is becoming a non-profit organization and has just created its own domain and a new Web site. Presenters at these San Francisco gatherings include business leaders, authors, and academics who share their work with audiences, then engage in stimulating dialogue together; past and upcoming presenters can be viewed at the new Web site.

About John Renesch

Better Future NEWS is prepared monthly by John Renesch, a San Francisco writer, futurist, and consultant/executive coach. John served as Editor-in-Chief of The New Leaders business newsletter from 1990 to 1997 and has created a dozen business anthologies on progressive business subjects, including consciousness, intuition and leadership. These books include New Traditions in Business, Learning Organizations and The New Bottom Line. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing.

John is also an international keynote SPEAKER, having addressed audiences in Tokyo, Seoul, London, Brussels, Budapest as well as many cities throughout the U.S. For a list of all the SERVICES John offers, go to Services.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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