We’ve previously written here about both privacy and anonymity: related but subtly different topics, both increasingly important in an increasingly monitored, documented, recorded and disseminated world. The ever-greater role of software systems for every aspect of business and online communication for every aspect of everything isn’t going to make these go away as topics either, so it was no surprise that a book about the unforeseen or more debilitating potential aspects of these developments – Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget”, which we may well review shortly – should prod my thinking in a slightly different direction. Where I found my train of thought heading was very much ‘offline – towards ‘talking to strangers’ (a powerful taboo in my childhood) and the role of third-parties.

We all have times when we can’t necessarily turn to those we probably most need to address, or aren’t yet ready or prepared to: these are often also the times when our instinct to want to talk through a situation with someone is often the strongest. When we are lucky, there is someone helpful to talk to: a friend, a relative, a trusted confidante – or a helpline manned by those with experience of dealing with people in whatever our situation might be.

We might find a self-help group of others in similar circumstances, where we can share our experiences – and, perhaps as importantly, reassure ourselves (and each other) that we are not as ‘alone’ as we thought we were. (Even the most self-assured human beings occasionally need a sense of validation or of community.) But it strikes me that we turn to strangers because we can’t get the answers we’re seeking (or even merely a receptive, listening ear) from those who are already familiar to us. Indeed, it may be ‘what is familiar’ that is triggering our questions. G K Chesterton may have expressed it wittily and light-heartedly but there’s an underlying truth to:

Men always talk about the most important things to perfect strangers. In the perfect stranger we perceive man himself; the image of a God is not disguised by resemblances to an uncle or doubts of wisdom of a moustache.”

Here’s an extract from a blog post by Jan Frankel Schau, an employment mediator practising in Southern California (I don’t know her in any way, but her words illustrate the point):

In the mediations over which I preside, I hear so many personal stories of strangers. They are grateful to have someone who will objectively hear them out. What did I do wrong to deserve to be fired from my job? Why didn’t he appreciate the loyalty and energy I put into building his business over so many years? Why didn’t they like me on the floor of the hospital where I worked? Why didn’t they understand that I just needed some more time to heal? Why didn’t they know how badly I was hurting? Why didn’t they apologize?”

In a previous post here, we looked at the role of anonymity in uncovering workplace issues that need to be both brought into the open and resolved. On reflection, it was not just anonymity that was critical in that instance: the involvement of a third-party agent – qualified professionals with a track record to back them up, and possibly signatories to a confidentiality agreement, but strangers none the less – was also important. The involvement of ‘outsiders’ enabled a fresh perspective to be reached, and for issues to be voiced that might otherwise have dwelt (or maybe I mean ‘festered’?) in an on-going silence.

In most organisational or workplace contexts, there are two lessons here. The first is that a culture where issues can be openly and frankly discussed without descending rapidly into shame, blame or repercussions is a healthier option for everyone. Blake Morrison may have penned a great line of poetry (“English, we hoard our secrets to the end”), but the national stereotype of the Stiff Upper Lip is one that came under threat not just because ‘society’ chose to become more ‘liberated’, but because we realised that a starched lip had disadvantages too. As environmentalist Dana Meadows observed, “It’s easier to share our cynicism with strangers than our dreams with friends”: a culture that poo-poos the value of dreams – and friends – only reinforces this difficulty.

A workplace culture that encourages open dialogue, the sharing of (and facing up to) issues and disagreements, and disassociates itself from a ‘blame culture’ dissolve – or ameliorate – overly-starched lips. And it does so, at least in part, by encouraging those who work together to establish rapport, rather than remaining … well, the word is probably strangers.

(There’s another element here too: in a blog posting we’ve referenced before, Meg Bear wrote about ‘micro-coaching’ – a few valuable words offered with good intentions by a third party. It also strikes me, looking back on that earlier post, that a workplace culture that allows or encourages ‘micro-coaching’ is one that recognises the importance of social capital, acknowledges that co-workers can be friends and offer informal support to each other. A workplace colleague may not be as deep or lasting a friend as one made socially, but they will probably have a far better understanding of the workplace circumstances, issues and culture: they can offer advice with greater context than our extra-mural social circle. Whether or not we take the advice that’s offered remains our own decision, of course: Matthew Parris, writing in The Times about the last forty years of the gay rights movement, reflects on a time as a young MP when “I remember a kindly Labour Deputy Chief Whip advising me to drop the whole subject”. The kindly Whip’s advice was probably meant in the interest of Parris’ parliamentary career, of course, but Parris is probably not the only person that is – many years on – glad that the advice was ignored.)

The second lesson is that this ideal scenario isn’t always possible, especially in the short-term, and that strangers (in the sense of outsiders, rather than the sense of the estranged) have a valuable role to play.

And sometimes, to quote ourselves (maybe we should talk to someone about solipsism?), we need to involve an outside agency because we simply can’t answer all our own issues ourselves. (Sometimes as we don’t have the answers, sometimes because we can perceive them but not accept them.) Here’s what we wrote earlier:

But we also believe that, at least sometimes, outside involvement is the best answer. Regardless of the tightness of budgets, some challenges cannot be ducked and internal resources – no matter how competent – cannot always answer them. […] no organisation can truly aspire to being able to see the best answer to every question it faces.”

Part of the value of the stranger – especially in the guise of the facilitator or coach – is the ability that they give us to see ourselves afresh or from previously ignored angles, and the ability to see different possibilities in the world around us and our relationship to it. It provides a way for us to access the experience and wisdom of others that our own lives or careers have not given us the opportunity to accumulate (or the courage to address). This new perspective may not be cosy – it may challenge behaviours or attitudes that we have until now derived comfort – but the challenge may be a positive one. And getting to know a stranger can be a powerful way of getting to know ourselves.

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