Outsiders enable openness

How being different has its advantages in creative conversations.

Being different has its advantages.

The Guardian recently published a conversation, translated from its original Japanese, between Haruki Murakami — a writer of fiction, and Seiji Ozawa — a conductor. Murakami describes how they had know each other for many years but prior to Ozawa being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer they had not really spoken about music. Ozawa was so dedicated to his work that when he was on, he was all-on and when he stepped away, he really needed to take a breather. Asking him about his work did not seem appropriate.

Now however, with his illness forcing him to take a break from music, Ozawa fuelled his passion through conversation rather than practical application, as Murakami describes below:

As weakened as he was, he took on a new vitality whenever the topic turned to music. Even when talking with a musical layman such as myself, any sort of conversation about music seemed to provide the refreshment he needed.

What I found most interesting though was the sentence that immediately followed:

And the very fact that I was not in his field probably set him at ease.

Ozawa is world renown. He has won numerous international prizes. He was the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He conducted the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra among many others. He has excelled at the top of his game.

So why would it be that he felt more comfortable opening up to someone who did not share his background or his experience?

I have often seen this effect in action at Wok+Wine, an experience that connects unlikely people in conversation across the globe. Looking back, I think this is part of what has helped me to open doors to opportunity as I lived in different places around the world.

Why would it be that it is your points of difference, not similarity, that encourage others to open up?

Here are a few of my ideas:

  1. New thinking. Much has been written about the importance of asking stupid questions and the benefits of naivety in spotting opportunities and solving complex problems. When we are too experienced in a particular area, we can become blinded by our acceptance of commonly held beliefs. We, often unwittingly, create echo chambers that reinforce the central school of thought and prevent challenging thoughts from disrupting the status quo. When a fresh mind joins the conversation, they can help to take it in new directions.
  2. Honest relief. When it comes to opening up, hierarchies must also play an important role. In highly competitive industries or environments, it does not always pay to be completely open and honest. Knowing something that your opponent doesn’t or having a skill they don’t have can give you the upper hand. You may also be afraid of speaking your mind in case your thinking offends the person who stands between you and your next promotion. When you don’t have anything to prove though, it is very refreshing to be able to turn off your internal filter and simply speak your mind.
  3. Focus on content, not comparison. Related to the above point, could it be that being different helps you to be present? You are more easily able to focus on the content of what the person is saying, than comparing your own position or thinking to theirs.
  4. Passion loves to be shared. When people are really passionate about a topic, they love to infect others with their passion. When you’re an outsider with little knowledge of their area of expertise, this effect is amplified as they can be a lot more confident that whatever they say is going to be new, and assuming that you are curious you most likely also find it to be interesting. There is no need to be reserved on the off chance that they’re telling something you already know.

Next time you find yourself in a position of being the outsider, remember to consider how the ‘expert’ you are speaking to might actually find it very refreshing — not annoying — to have an opportunity to engage with a fresh new mind. It is not just you benefiting from their knowledge. They too derive benefits from speaking openly about their passion without the risk of being judged or ranked. And if you combine good listening with good questioning, they too might learn something.