How candor and vulnerability are elicited from the “stranger”

Editor’s note: Ben Jenkins is the co-founder of Sympler, a conversational research company.

I once met the authors of a book titled “Consequential Strangers” which expanded on sociological studies into the “strength of weak ties.” The book illustrated how we travel through life surrounded by “convoys” of connections. Those closest to us often understand us the least because they have so much invested in the relationship. Whereas weak ties – or strangers who care – can have remarkably transformative effects on our life. Through their remove and objectivity, they can be surprisingly observant and consequently can be the source of the best advice. 

In the decade plus since I read the book, the world has become less emotionally connected. While our tools and tech boast greater connectivity, their usage took surprisingly antisocial turns. Tribalism’s increase has meant that our strong ties have entrenched while our weak ties have become enemies. You probably haven’t missed the increasing tirade of “if you’re not with us you’re against us” on social media platforms. 

This addiction to the binary that swept through culture and politics also blunted the instincts of researchers. Not only does the literal binary dominate data collection – through methods like the A/B test – but my fellow practitioners have developed allergies to nuanced, personal and awkward questions. In the era of personal media and hyperconnectivity we became frightened of asking the tough questions. And we’re not the only ones. Consumers are intimidated of sharing truthful feelings in interviews and focus groups, too. The presence of another human with their biases and judgements can be quite off-putting and has hampered qualitative research’s aptitude for depth. 

For the last five years we’ve been putting “the strength of weak ties” to the test as we understand consumers, citizens and humans at a more profound level. It has reminded me of our need for care, curiosity and a healthy distance from those emotional triggers that derail honesty. We’ve brought an environment of privacy and anonymity to deeply personal, intimate conversations – one that’s more typical of close friends. By marrying this stranger anonymity with the familiarity of the chat app environment and deeply probing questions (usually expected from close ties), we’ve dislodged a level of candor and vulnerability we’d never seen before. Here are three ways we achieve it: 

1. Environment

So many research spaces force participants to leave the comfort of their own spaces and enter that of the researcher – instantly putting them at a disadvantage as they’re ill at ease. We don’t. Instead, we conduct all our conversations in the familiar spaces of chat messaging. Our deep conversations sit right alongside those with loved ones which makes them feel at home and where their System 1 is activated and they can relax, reflect and enter a state of openness and vulnerability. 

2. “Stranger tech”

When a pair of human eyes are boring into your soul it can be hugely off-putting, and the likelihood of that soul being laid bare is significantly reduced. So, we bring a “stranger” to the conversation in the form of chatbots. Studies have shown that chatbots perform a similar role to that of a confessional, by screening off the “judgy” eyes but still transmitting the curious, supportive and gentle sentiments of a human, participants can relax and share their truest feelings. When judgment is removed, there is more space for the whole human participant to show up. 

3. Enabling agency

The final step is to invite the participant to be co-author of their own analysis. This isn’t too far removed from the way a therapist might think about the dynamic. The greatest expert on self is the self. When encouraged to be the analyst as well as the subject, participants show surprising alacrity and reflectiveness. Gentle nudges that ask them to step outside of themselves and see themselves from the perspective of another is sometimes enough to provide that distance that we discussed at the beginning. Because even seeing your own actions as strange can be an excellent way of seeing them with renewed clarity. The business of empathy, after all, is about putting yourself into the shoes of others (strangers), so what better way to become empathetic than through using the stranger to force genuine reflection?