Take a seat, make a friend

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This week, we present: people issues.

Feeling uncomfortable talking to strangers is a classic obstacle to action. In this delightful video, the folks at SoulPancake (the same media group responsible for Kid President) show us one way to make introductions fun and memorable.

Have you ever made a new connection from a totally random interaction like this? Tell us about it!

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Beyond bears: What I learned about people in Alaska

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This week, we present: people issues.

A few years ago, one month away from college graduation, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

I was a double major in communications and Spanish, had two internships under my belt, and no earthly idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I applied to dozens of jobs, mostly in New York City but also abroad, and crossed my fingers.

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Idealist’s Community Manager Matt Cifaldi immediately after bear-spraying himself in Alaska.
(photo courtesy of the author)

During this time I called a friend of mine who told me to apply for a job at a nonprofit he had worked for in Alaska through an AmeriCorps grant. He was enthusiastic and thought it might be a good fit for me.

Little did I know then that two weeks after commencement I would find myself setting up a tent in a field outside of Anchorage at 2:00 a.m., wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The program lasted from June to November, and the idea was simple: in teams, we traveled across the state of Alaska improving trails, keeping highways clean, and developing events with local communities. We lived at campsites in tents. Showering was a weekly event, and we had no access to electricity.

I expected my time in Alaska to be a trying experience, and it often was. Rain would last for an entire week, the mosquitoes were unbearable during the summer, and I never really got a full night of sleep. I ran into all sorts of wildlife, most of it frightening. I climbed mountains and glaciers, and I learned more about living outdoors than I thought I would ever know.

What I didn’t expect, and in fact didn’t even consider, was what I would learn about other people. I signed up for the Alaska program for relatively selfish reasons: I wanted to wash off four years of city living, have an adventure, and get some experience working in the nonprofit sector.

But when I arrived home in November smelling like a campfire and ecstatic to sleep on a mattress, I came back with more than bear stories. I had learned some valuable lessons about living and working with others that I still find useful today.

1. First impressions are almost always wrong.

For our first week, everyone attended an orientation program. We learned how to use chainsaws, practiced CPR, and watched a video about bear safety. We made meals together and started to get to know one another. After the end of orientation, the initial large group of fifty split into six smaller teams.

We were all from different areas of the country, and ranged in age from 18 to 30 years old. No one on our team seemed to have much in common, and I thought I had everybody figured out within a week of working with them. I decided they were lazy, or stubborn, didn’t work well with others, or were distant.

However, as their unique stories unfolded over dozens of campfire conversations and morning coffees, I realized that each of my teammates had a deep personal story to tell.

And that I had been wrong about each and every one of them.

For example, during the first few days, one person on my team casually told me he’d come to Alaska by following an eagle that had appeared in his dreams. I quickly dismissed him as a little bit crazy. But by the end of our time together, I looked up to him and considered him my good friend. And to this day I record interesting dreams I have, mostly due to his influence.

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The grandeur of the 49th state! (photo courtesy of the author)

2. Different personalities clash in close quarters. Get over it.

We did everything together. Every day we woke up, made breakfast, drove to our worksite, worked until lunch, ate lunch together, worked some more, drove back to camp, cooked dinner, then went to sleep.

With nothing but time on our hands, we gossiped. It often felt like we were living a supercharged version of Survivor. I’d be friendly with one teammate for two weeks, get into an argument with them, then find another teammate to be best friends with for the next fortnight. Everyone did it. With a limited supply of potential friends, most transgressions were quickly forgiven, and just as quickly occurred again.

Working with such a small group of people and being in constant contact taught me this: everyone has something valuable to offer, as well as something negative. Focusing on the negative aspects of someone’s personality is often easier, especially in a work setting, but it’s never productive.

3. Being a leader is a lot harder than it looks.

Our team leader was responsible for our budget, arranging jobs across the state, and generally keeping us motivated and alive. She was our boss, parent, and friend all at once.

Before Alaska, I’d viewed my past managers’ jobs as similar to mine, except they got paid more. From living in close contact with my boss, though, I realized her responsibilities were much greater. She had to do everything I did, plus keep everything organized and solve disagreements between team members, of which there were many. She was also just as far from home as the rest of us, and couldn’t as comfortably confide in us as we could in each other.

There’s a reason managers get paid more: their job is often much harder than it seems.

The entire Alaska trip was harder than it seemed it would be, in fact, and there were times I truly wanted to give up and book a flight home. But in the end, I wouldn’t trade the half year I spent there for anything else.

I am a better person for having been to Alaska, and not a day goes by that I don’t use something I learned there. Like when I meet someone new, I know not to judge them based on first impressions. And when I meet a bear, I know not to run away. It will just chase you.

Tell us about a time you unexpectedly learned about people when you set out to learn something else.

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Forget Facebook—face-to-face is still how good innovations spread

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This week, we present: people issues.

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Sometimes a friendly conversation is the most effective way for an idea to spread.
(photo courtesy Filckr Creative Commons)

We can be so stubborn sometimes. Even with clear information, incentives, and easy-to-follow instructions, a lot of the time people just don’t give up their old habits.

How many of us have tried to encourage people in our community to do something differently—even if it would make their lives easier or better in some way—only to have those ideas not catch on or slowly fizzle out over time?

Even in a field like medicine where innovative ideas can save literally hundreds of thousands of lives, new ideas and improved practices are oftentimes shrugged off as unimportant. Why is this the case?

Surgeon, writer, and researcher Atul Gawande recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker exploring how good ideas are spread. By examining a recent campaign in northern India designed to reduce infant deaths after childbirth, the Better Birth Project, he suggests that a friendly face may be the most important thing campaigns designed to successfully create lasting change can offer:

The most common approach to changing behavior is to say to people, “Please do X.” Please warm the newborn. Please wash your hands. Please follow through on the twenty-seven other childbirth practices that you’re not doing. This is what we say in the classroom, in instructional videos, and in public service campaigns, and it works, but only up to a point.

To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way. So what about just working with health care workers, one by one, to do just that?

With the Better Birth Project, we wondered, in particular, what would happen if we hired a cadre of childbirth-improvement workers to visit birth attendants and hospital leaders, show them why and how to follow a checklist of essential practices, understand their difficulties and objections, and help them practice doing things differently. In essence, we’d give them mentors.

He continues…

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty.

We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people.

But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

In the case of the Better Birth Project, direct and consistent contact with trained mentors is starting to make a difference. As the nurses build relationships with the campaign workers, they’re taking more and more ownership over the new ideas and changing their routines.

And why are they doing what the mentors suggest? In one nurse’s words: “She was nice.”

Do you know of other campaigns that have successfully used sociable tactics like this? Or campaigns that prove an exception to the rule?

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3 resources to help you talk to strangers

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This week, we present: people issues.

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“Ummm, what’s your name again?”

We’re told as kids not to talk to strangers, but as adults, an inability to do so can become problematic. It’s important to make connections with new people in all parts of our lives, whether we’re participating in community events, building our professional networks, pioneering new friendships, or trying to get a new project off the ground.

But not everyone can summon their inner social butterfly at the drop of a hat. There are a lot of ways to go about talking with strangers, and depending on your goal, awkwardness could well be seen as endearing! But if you think your game could use a little polish, consider these resources about three common social challenges:

1. Making small talk.

When it comes to making connections with new people, small talk is huge. In this The Wall Street Journal article on how to become a better conversationalist, columnist Elizabeth Bernstein explores how we can improve what experts call “conversational intelligence.”

According to Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, there are five stages of a successful conversation practiced by those with the “gift of gab.” These stages include getting started, personal introduction, pre-topical exploration, post-topical elaboration, and wrap-up.

Throughout these stages, it’s important to focus most of your attention on the other person.

“Ask a lot of questions. People love to talk about themselves and often will think you are a great conversationalist if you talk about them and not yourself. Don’t let the conversation stall after the person has answered—be ready with follow-up questions or build on the topic.”

2. Reaching out to people you find online.

Just because you’re connected to someone online doesn’t mean you’re close IRL. But what’s the best way to reach out to someone if you’ve never actually met them in person?

In this article recently published on Forbes, leadership and career success coach Kathy Caprino offers tips for reaching out to online contacts and making those connections in person. She reminds us that whether on the web or face to face, the same rules apply:

“Be considerate of their time, and understand that building relationships online is exactly like building them in person. You wouldn’t come up to a stranger at a cocktail party and grill them with questions,” she says. “You’d ease into the situation, listen deeply first, and learn about who they are and what they care about. Then, and only then, would you respectfully pose a question or offer a comment that you know is a good fit with their passions, skills, and interests.”

3. Interacting with people in their homes.

Going door-to-door is an advanced form of talking with strangers. Although it makes some people nervous, making personal contact is one of the best ways to unite a community around an issue or campaign.

This online toolkit from Compass Point Nonprofit Services is a series of tutorials and interactive video games designed to introduce people with the basics of starting conversations when approaching a stranger in their home. It’s safe, low-risk, and available to play online for free in both English and Spanish.

Lessons include recognizing when it’s a good time to talk, breaking the ice, sharing details about yourself, listening, and following up. While of course the simulated games can’t prepare you for everything you’ll see in the real world, the toolkit offers a great (i.e. not scary) way to practice conversation before you get out there and pound the pavement.

What other tips do you have when it comes to talking with strangers? Share with us in the comments.

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