15 September 2019

Lawrence Jones MBE in the workplace - talking to a strangerYou’ll never know what someone has to say if you don’t listen.

How many times have you bumped into someone, asked how they are and left it at that? In fact, that person may have something fascinating to say. They may have the answer to your problem, or you to theirs. They may spark something that changes your life.

I have always been fascinated by people and how everyone’s mind works differently. We all have unique lived experiences, perspectives and opinions.

Everyone has a story to tell that you need to hear

Yet all too often, we’re guilty of overlooking the stories that live within the people closest to us until it is too late. We perhaps forget that memories and knowledge are gone forever when people pass. That person’s opinions, knowledge and view of life are gone. We take it for granted. What a waste!

Do we talk to those we know enough? What could you learn from your mum or dad? Your grandparents? What would you have asked those who have passed away?

I recently watched a TED Talk called Why Everyone Has a Story the Whole World Needs to Hear by a man called Dave Isay. Dave founded StoryCorps, a project to record people’s histories into one massive archive. In the talk, he describes the value of hearing people. The value of how listening to their stories helps you to understand them better.

It is an emotional listen at times. Throughout the thousands of interviews that StoryCorps teammates have facilitated, Dave says, the most important thing those facilitators learned from being present during these interviews is that people are basically good. When we hear so much about how negative the world is now and society is falling to pieces, these are assumptions that we can easily tar everyone with. In fact, when you chat to most people, you realise that we are all in the same boat and all striving for similar things in the world.

A look into a different world

Dave truly highlights just how important it is to chat with our nearest and dearest before we run out of time. That really resonated with me for a number of reasons. It also took me back to one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had. It was with my Uncle Phil. He lived past 100 years old and was describing to me what life what like with horse-drawn ambulances. In our motorised, hyper-connected world, it was almost impossible for me to imagine ambulances being anything other than what they are now! Just 100 or so years ago they were still a reality. Hearing that made me look at what we take for granted now. It was a healthy reminder to be grateful for the world in which we now live.

These are just stories from loved ones, now imagine how many stories each stranger you meet could share!

You could say we’re more connected than ever through the internet and social media, but I see the opposite to be true. It is a novelty to chat with a stranger on the train or a flight because everyone is usually buried in a screen. Imagine how much more entertainment and fulfilment you’d get if, rather than scrolling through a phone or playing a game, you asked a stranger about their life. The journey would certainly pass much more quickly, I say that from experience.

A flight to remember

Many years ago I found myself sitting next to a stranger on a flight over to Europe. She was a few decades older than me and, from her attire, looked to be travelling on business. As we taxied the runway, she struck up a conversation with me. She asked about where I was going, what I did for a job, what my hobbies were, my family and so on. What sticks with me is that she was genuinely interested.

We chatted for the entire journey and she told me that she had learned to really make the most of life. She wasn’t afraid of flying as she had been in her youth, because she had spent the past years pushing herself outside of her comfort zone. She’d been solo travelling around the world. She had been sky-diving. In fact, she lived the most extraordinary life and her outlook was absolutely infectious.

All too quickly, we landed, she scooped up her bags and headed off. I wish I’d taken her name and details; it’s an experience that has always stuck in my mind.

I genuinely felt valued and lifted by the conversation. A flight that I had previously decided as being inconvenient and a hassle actually proved to be enjoyable and a lesson for the future.

Talking to a stranger

From a business point of view, speaking with a stranger now and then is an absolute essential part of life. Almost 20 years ago, walking back into our business centre, I spotted a new face by the lifts. I didn’t often take the lift because we were on the first floor. It was faster to run up the stairs. However, I walked over and waited with him. By the time he got to his floor, I knew everything about him. His name, his background, and that he was setting up an office for Avis in Manchester, based in the same building as us. As he stepped out of the lift I told him that if he needed any technical help, we’re there for him. It was literally an elevator pitch, and it worked!

Ultimately, every person you meet is a potential client. From a personal point of view, every person you meet has the potential to change your life in one way or another.

We’re raised to believe that strangers are dangerous and to be avoided, but in adulthood, the opposite is often true. Of course, some strangers are to be avoided but in general, chatting with the person next to you has the potential to illuminate your day, or even your life.

I suppose it all comes down to one thing: never discount people. Everyone can bring value to your life, just as you can bring value to theirs.

No matter who you are, you can learn something from every single person you encounter, it really is that simple.



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