Don't Be Afraid to Talk To Strangers

Professional Development Associations Now November/December 2014 By: Kristin Clarke

Author Alan Gregerman is urging professionals to break an old childhood habit. Nearly all new ideas and insights come from people we don't know, he says.

An organization's survival may depend on its employees breaking a well-intentioned habit from childhood: not speaking to strangers. So says Alan Gregerman, author of The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth about Insight, Innovation, and Success, who writes that 99 percent of new ideas come from the "insights and unique perspectives of others"—frequently strangers.

Gregerman urges leaders to set aside beliefs that their associations "know best" and instead "understand that if organizations are going to do significantly different things, we must be willing to cast a wider net and stretch in new ways. Often that means getting not only beyond our own walls but also those of our industry to look at other industries, walks of life, and people different from us who may have interesting new ideas that, combined with what we know, could help us reach our full potential."

He blames extensive negative news coverage as provoking "a greater tendency to stick close to people we know best and not to reach out. What I want people to think about is that there's real benefit in connecting with people when you're just waiting in line or attending a conference. People who have crossed your path through serendipity could provide a spark, some energy, or a different perspective."

Associations also can take advantage of technology to reach out directly to new people anywhere on the planet, Gregerman notes. Organizations should habitually explore online to see who may be doing "interesting thinking about our challenge or opportunity and then reach out to try to connect with them," he says.

Approached well, such strangers often willingly engage, perhaps changing our actions dramatically, says Gregerman. With practice, outreach to unknown individuals becomes anything but strange.

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Talk to Strangers."]

Kristin Clarke

Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.