From Stranger Danger to New Clue

Have you experienced “stranger danger?” Not the kind we warn children about. Imagine arriving at a conference to find that the lunch session is organized with assigned seats. Or showing up early to a meeting and sitting awkwardly across the table from unfamiliar faces, also waiting. Sometimes we don’t have the energy to make small talk, and being forced to interact with strangers feels less like an opportunity than a responsibility (or punishment).

A few weeks ago I was standing in a hallway before a conference session, watching the waiting crowd continue to swell. My palms were sweating a bit; I was about to lead a training on storytelling, and although I was pretty comfortable with the content, I wasn’t sure how I’d convince this bigger-than-expected audience that the tools I was sharing could lead to real results.

Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. As we waited for the room to empty from the prior session, I chose to let go of silently rehearsing my presentation. Instead, I opted to stay in the present and chat up the stranger next to me. Thank goodness I did!

That stranger solved my predicament. I asked why she had chosen to attend the storytelling session instead of the many wonderful alternatives taking place in adjacent rooms. She described how her organization had convinced their board of directors to act in record time. Using data collected about how their program was serving beneficiaries, staff members identified four important initiatives for improving outcomes. During a board meeting, four families who had benefited from the organization’s work shared their personal stories and brought the value of the proposals to life (one family for each initiative proposed). The family members answered questions and explained how each initiative would impact them personally. “This process would usually have taken us months,” she said with wonder. “We would have introduced the idea, shared data, given time to reflect, held one-on-one conversations, and then reconvened. Instead, the board voted to approve all four initiatives within an hour and a half!”

It turns out I didn’t have to make my own case to convince the audience that this training would be useful. My new friend shared her story with the full audience and received gasps when she described how storytelling had enabled her board to take action within a single meeting. Her words, spoken by a practitioner and peer of many in the room, were much more impactful than mine could have been as a trainer tooting her own horn.

Collective impact is often applied toward complex problems, where a single actor—or organization—doesn’t have all the resources, answers, or insights alone. It can be tempting to focus heavily on getting our contribution right. We want to believe we’ve done all we can, that we gave our best. Yet sometimes letting go of perfecting our part actually improves our chances of success. My message was stronger when communicated to those in the room not by me, but through a peer’s story. And her message to her board members was more effective when told through the voices of those being served. Opening our eyes to new people and perspectives can uncover unforeseen clues on the path to impact, and can help us leverage others’ lived experiences and assets to push our own impact farther.

How have you benefited from similar unexpected encounters? What tips do you have for overcoming stranger danger? We’d love to hear your thoughts! 

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