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Talk to a Stranger

The 7.17am train to London was packed. I was one of the lucky ones with a table seat and my laptop was out and I had an hour and half to complete some tasks and run through the talk on coaching I was going to give that day. As I ran through it, making a few last minute tweaks to the coaching presentation, I became aware that the fellow passenger to my left was not gazing out of the window or at his own laptop, but was now intensely looking at my presentation. Protocol was then broken. . . He talked to a stranger.

As children we were told to not talk to strangers. Anyone who has travelled on the morning trains to London, knows the protocol – you don’t talk to strangers. “What is it that you coach?” He asked. Well, it was now obvious he had read the presentation. I explained how I run a leadership development company and as part of that I coach people in business, education and life. And as he had broken protocol and spoke to a stranger, I returned the favour. “Why are you interested? Do you coach?”

It turns out he coaches rugby for a London Irish team and writes articles for He liked what he had read and explained his philosophy on coaching young people in rugby. I listened intently as he talked about how he did in fact coach, asking questions, evoking thoughtful reflection of his young proteges. In my experience of sports coaching, many ‘coaches’ teach rather than coach and so it was refreshing to listen to him as he discussed his approach and the impact on developing a thinking approach in the rugby players. He shared the title of his latest article, ‘Auftragstaktik: The style of winning teams and the reason the Wallabies lost’ and talked about the principle of Auftragstaktik. Auftragstaktik is a military principle that the outcome of the mission rather than the specific means of achieving it is the most important. He explained how he used this in his coaching of young players. His aim was for players to know the overall principle and mission but to be thinking players and have the freedom to apply the skills they had been taught in a way they felt best, as long as it met the overarching mission. This thinking resonated with my philosophy of empowering people to lead, creating interdependent leaders, high on vision and values.

We spent the next hour chatting about leadership, coaching, rugby and business, sharing and exchanging thinking. Now some of my work was not done on the laptop on that journey, but had I not ‘talked to a stranger’, I would have not learnt some things, including 'Auftragstaktik' from Conor Wilson, Rugby coach, rugby writer and IT expert. He is now no longer a stranger. Especially as we then ended up on the same train carriage on the journey home!

Matthew Syed, in his latest book ‘Rebel ideas’ talks about ‘echo chambers’. An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system. In other words, it is where we surround ourselves with those of a similar view to ourselves and see opposing views as the enemy, there to trick us. This is highly prevalent at the moment, especially in social media and politics. When you meet opposing views it can evoke a defensive response and in some cases then leads to trying to discredit not only the opposing ideas but the character of the person who has them.

The danger of echo chambers is that we don’t expose our thinking to other views. In doing so we limit our ability to either a) expand our thinking or b) test and check our thinking. Sometimes you can see bosses do this, shooting down in flames any alternative view to their idea and as a result ideas are often launched with a resulting failure because the idea hadn’t been tested in a safe situation to iron out any potential errors. In Rebel Ideas, Syed explains that the one thing that helps break down echo chambers is building relationship with people of opposing views. In doing so we allow ourselves to consider alternatives and hone our thinking.

So, as a leader, maybe ‘talk to a stranger’. It just might expand your knowledge. It just might develop your thinking. It just might help you test and measure an idea to make it better and stronger and avoid failure. Go on – talk to a stranger.

Connor doesn’t know that he is now the lead character in a blog. But, If you would like to read Connor’s article, you can find it at

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