Rules to be Broken in 2017: Talking to Strangers

Saul WilliamsWhat’s an appropriate response to 2016 look like? Unplug yourself and go off grid? Protest? Carry on regardless…

In this piece I’ll explore a response for our divided communities using the lyrics (in bold) and narrative thread of Talk to Strangers by Saul Williams

“Nah, I wasn’t raised at gunpoint and I’ve read too many books to distract me from the mirror when unhappy with my looks”

So… if we needed a year of global events to give us a zit that needs collectively squeezing, then the last 12 months certainly came up trumps. Somehow in divided nations the views of roughly 50% of the UK and US populations were greeted with widespread shock and surprise.

“I was hoping to invest in a lesson that I learned when I thought this fool would jump me just because it was my turn”

protest-262,979,636 Trump voters and 17,410,742 leave voters made the state we’re in visible; highlighting not so much an elephant in the room but a herd of elephants in every community. Though we live as neighbours, we seem largely oblivious to the wildly divergent views our neighbourhoods hold.


As 2016’s feelings of fear and anger subside and we look towards what lays before us in 2017, I believe the need to find ways to counteract the prevailing ‘echo chamber social media feed’ view of our world is stronger than ever.

Abandon everything you were told as a kid folks… we need to talk to strangers!

“And maybe in your mind it may seem I got punched out, ’cause I walked a narrow path and then went and changed my route”

long-t-3With hate crimes post EU Referendum rising by 41%, and a tidal wave of despondency flowing through remain voters, it’s fair to say responses to BREXIT ran deep. Similar hate crime trends were reported in the US following Trump’s election at the end of a divisive presidential race that saw Clinton describe 50% of Trump voters as “deplorables”. When the two leading candidates for the US election are fueling division by reinforcing the view that ‘others’ don’t have any value in society, you’d be forgiven for thinking openness and empathy was a narrow path rarely walked.

So here’s the horribly challenging truth folks, to avoid falling into this same pattern of behaviour of division we need to change our path. If we’re going to tackle right-wing isolationist nationalist politics the change starts in us…. otherwise there’s a danger we just point at whoever represents our ‘others’ and shout “deplorables”.

“That openness exposed me to a truth I couldn’t find in the clenched fist of my ego or the confines of my mind”

Where do we find truth? Algorithms are increasingly in charge of what we are exposed to… through targeted advertising and social media the internet is telling the story we individually want to hear; everyone plugged into their own comfort blanket narrative.

image3355191.3 million people in America and 36.45 million people in the UK now actively use Facebook, a space curated by what an algorithms has worked out about you from your internet use. Set that growing sphere of our lives against reports that pubs are closing at a rate of 27 per week and the rising costs of living moving our leisure time away from opportunities for random interactions with strangers and we’re left with some important questions for our democracies.

What spaces are left for political debate? Where in your daily life are the opportunities for your political views to be shaped by others? How do we move politics away from protest votes and post-truth?

“’Cause we represent a truth son that changes by the hour and when you open to it vulnerability is power”

Now let’s be honest… talking to strangers who express different political preferences can be difficult, especially when you compare it to the possibilities for connection with like minded folk. Starting a conversation with a stranger is more likely to leave you feeling vulnerable than safe, but in that vulnerability is the potential for something powerful; the possibility of seeing the fellow human behind the political stance.

Hidden behind the political preference someone expresses is a why they’ve chosen that political stance. At the root of the why is likely to be a universal theme that you care about too… housing, jobs, injustice, health care, public services etc.

It’s from the why we build understanding and unity…  and find connection.

“when you finally take the time to see what they’re about and perhaps you find them lonely or their wisdom trips you out”

If we’re looking to reconnect politics with truth we’ve got to create forums to hear that truth, and so we arrive at the challenge… getting heard! Listening to something you don’t agree with without fixing, rescuing or offering unwanted advice is challenging, but unlocking the power of acknowledging the perspective of another is we need to learn!

Barack Obama, Donald TrumpIt’s common in an awkward conversation to try to resolve any tension in the interaction; to make things okay. I’ve done it all my life. In those moments my mind speeds up… “okay this topic is uncomfortable” …and the interaction switches from listening into the act of managing the flow towards comfortable closure from the difficult subject.

Acknowledge the views of others in conversation may involve silence… but that’s okay!

In mentoring they talk about FRAP; which comes from the fixing, rescuing, advising or projecting we do to make things in an interaction okay. However to FRAP undermines connection. If we’re so busy making things feel less uncomfortable we aren’t giving people the space to be heard and so we lose the opportunity to properly acknowledge what may be anger, grief or joy at the root of the other person’s perspective.

If we’re looking to move on from ‘post-truth’ politics we need to learn how create the space to hear the truth of others; what the truth looks like for strangers.

“But come this time around you’ll have someone to hold your hand, who prays for you, who’s there for you, who sends you love and light. Exposes you to parts of you that you once tried to fight”

image1-14So I couldn’t exactly write a piece about how I believe we should respond to the global events of 2016 without offering examples of this response in action. It’s so encouraging to see it in action in many places… arts charities like Young Women’s Music Project bring together really diverse communities in Oxford as does Lemn Sissay’s Christmas Dinners for care leavers in many cities up and down the UK.

The week after the BREXIT vote I sat in a circle with 20 men from the Oxford community of A Band of Brothers. The diversity of this group of men is unusual in my life. Our practice of circling up is well practiced. These gatherings always start with everyone ‘checking in’ from where they’re at and without interruption; acknowledging all those present that hold the community. Peoples ‘check-ins’ on the week following the referendum were extraordinary because they represented the breadth of BREXIT experiences from racism fears to jubilation. What I witnessed on that evening was a community modelling how to hold the views of very different people safely.

The emotional charge I carried following the BREXIT vote changed on that evening; more than that… I changed. In the conversations that followed the ‘check ins’ I found many who voted differently to me but shared my perspectives on key topics.

“Where ignorance is common sense and senselessness the norm and flags wave high above the truth, and the two never touch”

The year that lurks behind us is going to play an important part in shaping the year ahead. In the absence of much direction from our UK political leaders, which direction of travel should we take to move away from ‘post-truth’ as we emerge from this maelstrom of 2016 emotions.

Before Trump was elected John Stewart observed that his candidacy had “animated that thought that a multi ethnic democracy, a multi-cultural democracy is impossible…” yet this fundamentally is what “America by its founding and constitution is”. Our small world is fundamentally multi ethnic and multi-cultural but at the same time our perspective of it is increasingly focused around our own world view. Finding space to talk to strangers has never been more important.

However it’s learning to listen that will fundamentally transform our interactions with others from resistance into creating the opportunities for change. If we can’t even hear the difference in our own communities, how will we ever know the truths our communities hold.

“this ain’t for the underground. This here’s for the sun. A seed a stranger gave to me and planted on my tongue and when I look at you I know I’m not the only one”

Learning to listen should be as simple as a humble seed, and as transformative as a seed’s growth into a garden. This is for everyone! So here’s an action for your new year to make this real. Find a friend or family member and together follow this exercise:

  • sit facing each other and take turns to talk for 3 minutes on a mundane problem you’ve had to solve recently (something like losing keys or trying to buy a gift) while the other listens
  • the first time round the listener should interrupt repeatedly with solutions and advice in an attempt to try fixing the problem
  • the second time the listener shouldn’t say a thing. The listener should maintain eye contact in a way that’s comfortable and show an authentic interest in what the other is sharing. If the listener is desperate to do something at the end of what they’ve heard they could thank the other and maybe acknowledge a root feeling in what the other shared (saying something like “that sounded tough”)
  • swap until both has experienced being heard and being interrupted

This exercise holds the potential to illustrate (in a very manufactured way) the difference between how it feels to be authentically listened to and to not being heard. To explore this further look up active listening.

If you’ve never heard Talk to Strangers by Saul Williams

“As a great man once said there is nothing more powerful than an idea, whose time has come”