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Stranger Rules by Dave LaRue

September 23, 2020

Stranger Rules by Dave LaRue

I’m coming off a week with a profoundly refreshing sense of normalcy—the old normal, that is, travel and seeing people in person. I’m not sure what the future holds but I have to say it felt great to start the week in Port Carling, Ontario, travel to Dallas, Texas, and coach and hang with our Comma Clubbers there, and then finish the week with my grandkids in Wayzata, Minnesota. I’m still here now as I’m writing this. 

The Comma Club coaching event was different than past events in that we had some people attending via Zoom. To my surprise, we managed to have a very successful workshop, utilizing the technology at the Reed Training Center. I guess we are learning and applying what and how we will behave in our future normals. 

I was working in the morning with my writing partner Robert Klein for our next book. So my mindset was on coaching, leading, building relationships, and just on a lot of the thoughts and thinking I have when I’m coaching and writing. During that session, Robert challenged me with one of his communication concepts: Stranger Rules.  

The idea is very simple. Think of your spouse or grown child. Think of your business partner. What if you were just now meeting them for the first time? How would you listen? How would you act? In short, remember you don’t know what they’ll say or do next and act like you care if they like you. Sometimes, when you’re not feeling close, not getting along, or not connecting with people close and important to you, it’s time to forget you know them and apply “stranger rules.” You can change a distracted pattern of interacting, you can stop taking them for granted, and you can be the person to break a bad pattern or a stalemate by acting differently first.  

My son and daughter-in-law had a social-distanced U.S. Open golf gathering yesterday. They invited some of their closest friends and the people that are in their social bubble. It was great to see the kids playing and doing what kids do and frankly it was inspiring hanging with some amazing adults and having great conversations.

I couldn’t help thinking about “Stranger Rules” as I mixed with people I was related to and knew intimately alongside people who were new to me—strangers!—and watched other people switch between those same modes. It really is observable. I was interested to feel the difference between modes and reflected on it later. 

Pretty much the definition of a close interpersonal relationship is that you have internalized special knowledge about them. You have a model of what they’re like and the kind of things they say and, as far as you can tell, think, and perceive. It helps you anticipate them, accommodate them, mesh and blend with them, so you can happily, comfortably live and/or work with them.

It’s a great thing, this ability to model, and it can be very well developed. You can carry on a mental conversation with someone who has passed away. You can rehearse how it will go when you pitch an idea to your business partner because of it—and, in a real sense, their mode of thinking is available to you through your imagination because of your model. Building and using these models is a special delight in life. It’s part of the pleasure of knowing people, the result—the proof—that you really know them. It allows us to have wonderful, warm, caring interactions, to know what to be concerned about or not, to feel the full weight of their mutual realness and existence so you know you’re not alone in the world. 

But if we interact with the model and not with them, we’re going a bridge too far. This is taking people for granted. We can actually treat people we know and love—and know we love them—worse than people we don’t know at all. When we assume we know what they’re saying or thinking, we really just talk at them. We don’t listen. The best way to check for good listening is to determine whether you feel like the next thing they say could change you. Are you listening as though you might be receiving useful information? How many arguments in a marriage are really just a confrontation over a pattern of not listening? How many opportunities to feel grateful for your partner or kids are lost because you’re just tuning into a known station and not checking in with a person who is different today than they were yesterday? Every once in a while, apply stranger rules. 

Our role as spouse or partner, parent, teacher, boss, relative, or long-time friend can relax into being more aggressive, mean, selfish, abrupt, or otherwise inattentive because we think we know them, we think they know us, and that there is some ultimate, agreed-upon intention that covers all interactions between us forever:

Of course I love you. I married you. I say it a lot. Every time I hang up! You know I don’t hate you. Yes, even though I have you on some kind of deep neurological mute.

Yes indeed my advice doesnot apply to your situation, but I’m only listening enough to respond at appropriate times, and besides, my approach to life is easier for me to talk about, so don’t be difficult.  

No, you know I respect your opinion. I said so last year. I’m just letting my gut hang out because I can be real with you. Lucky you, you get the real me!

With strangers and new acquaintances, we show more consideration, patience, understanding, appreciation, and gratitude. We put on our "nice" hat! Not necessarily our "real" hat! We’re aware that we don’t understand them so we have more graciousness in our communication. We give ourselves more room to learn before we speak. We want to be liked or at least regarded as pleasantly neutral. We are interested in them. We consider what they say and do as clues to complete an understanding. Because what they mean, think, and intend is more of a mystery to us, with more potential to affect us unpredictably. And all of this is just because we don’t know them yet.

Well, I love the people in my life, so I am all for anything that will help me express to them that they are at least as important to me as people I don’t know. As a coach I have a particular role and relationship that makes it easy to listen and not assume, and I value listening in my personal life. But I think it’s a great reminder to stop and notice how much the people I love and care about have changed since the last time I really noticed and to dig in with fresh interest to update my ideas about what they need, what they want, how they’re feeling. My goal is to be real, authentic, and to make a difference, and I decrease my effectiveness and potential impact when I fill people’s blanks!

So I’m looking forward to applying Stranger Rules to my closest relationships and finding even more about the people who mean the most. I hope you will too. Let me know how it goes.

Thanks a billion, 

Dave