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The 3 Unexpected Secrets for Finding Common Ground Between Strangers

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Sep 25 2020

When Super Potato* met Fantastic Fixer* for the first time, she asked if Fantastic Fixer’s puppy was feeling better. Fantastic Fixer wanted to know about Super Potato’s recent birthday. There were no awkward silences, despite the fact that Super Potato was nine and Fantastic Fixer was closer to 79 and they were, until this very moment, strangers.

Well, not complete strangers. They had shared an unusual experience, designed by IDEO, over the previous five weeks: The Department of Super Secrets.

When COVID-19 shut down elementary school buildings, it shut down opportunities for young students to build soft skills like empathy. It also severed personal contact between seniors and other human beings, leaving many confined and lonely.

Alongside teachers and students at Mineola Union Free School District in Mineola, New York, IDEO took on a project to design a program that would help 4th graders build empathy by connecting idle students with isolated seniors. We thought it would be a simple, playful opportunity, but in the end, we found a powerful tool for connection that might be scaled to bridge any number of social divides.

What’s the key? Well, that’s a secret.

Connections grown in isolation

The IDEO team decided that instead of trying to compensate for the limitations of quarantine, we would embrace those constraints and make them the centerpiece of the experience.

People can’t meet face-to-face? Perfect. We’ll beat quarantine at its own game. Neither partner will know anything about the other. No names, no ages. They’d have no clue about the other’s most basic biographical information, like age, race, gender; instead, this would simply be two human beings building a connection by sharing stories of their hopes and fears. A relationship built on meaning rather than appearance.

Thus, the Department of Super Secrets was born—an IDEO twist on the pen-pal relationship. Our heroes picked secret super aliases and we paired them up: one student with one senior citizen. Over five weeks, the partners were prompted to share five specific secrets designed to be low stakes, but highly personal, carefully crafted to spotlight character, values, and feelings. This was a delicate tightrope walk, asking them to offer up something meaningful without being invasive or uncomfortable. We designed the prompts to build on each other, gently establishing a bond through vulnerability and reflection.

Every secret was shared in two ways, with words and images. We wanted the partners to spend energy reflecting on their own lives so they could benefit as much from the telling as the receiving.

You know what was so wonderful about it—I had been cheated all these years not remembering that image of my brother and I playing under the table. I wouldn’t have [remembered it] if we didn’t do this.

Marvelous Museum Maven, Super Secret Senior

The secrets were exchanged through actual mail, not email. This slower method gave the partners time to explore their memories, express themselves deliberately, and—in a situation where days begin to blend—gave them something to look forward to. The tactility of cards filled with handwritten words and pictures turned them into a gift; it made the receiver a caretaker, safeguarding moments of someone else’s life.

Friendship across distance and decades

We wanted our participants to build a connection, not just exchange information. This was not about grown-ups humoring kids, or kids humoring grown-ups—this was about two experiences at either end of a spectrum, sharing a window into their point of view.

As part of the final exchange, each partner used what they’d learned about the other to create and send a gift to their anonymous pal: a superhero mask based on the shared secrets. And then the Department of Super Secrets hosted a reveal party. Partners came together on a video call, each wearing their newly gifted masks. Although they had been exchanging stories for weeks, this was the first time they saw the face behind the feelings. This was the first time Super Potato met Fantastic Fixer, and it was lovely.

Visit the Department of Super Secrets to meet the 4th graders and senior citizens behind the masks

Before and after their experience, we asked the partners to answer a few questions meant to gauge their empathy. Turns out the numbers support the anecdotes: Their time with the Department of Super Secrets seems to have genuinely increased their empathy scores, especially their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

So what went right? We built the Department of Super Secrets by combining three key elements:

1. Anonymity: character vs. characteristics

No one in the world is more perfect for you than the mysterious stranger sitting alone in the coffee shop. The less we know about someone, the easier it is to dress them up and see them exactly as we wish. That’s why we sidestepped the introductions, the descriptions of hair color, and the family history. We wanted each side to begin by speaking across the mysterious absence created by anonymity to someone they assumed was a kindred spirit, ready and excited to connect.

We’ve all seen enough awkward hugs and pinched cheeks between kids and elderly relatives to know these two groups don’t always dance to the same beat. If the relationship began with the mental shorthand of “old” and “young,” there would be silent assumptions on both sides. Confirmation bias would run wild.

We used the freedom of anonymity to create rapport so partners would speak their truth honestly without tailoring it to their audience.

2. Story: introductions from the inside out

My name Is Ben. I once had my heart broken.

Which of those two offerings is more likely to create a bond between us? Ironically, the things that shape us most distinctly—our stories—are also the things most of us have in common. At the very core, we all share the same stories, but told in our own unique ways. Your parents may not have named you Ben, but you probably know what it is to cry into your pillow.

We used story as a sneaky back door to help Super Secret partners appreciate each other's identities once we dropped the anonymity. By the reveal party, they had connected enough through the shared stories that when they discovered each other’s identity, it enriched their idea of who a young or old person could be.

3. Play: lighten the mood, deepen the conversation

As I’ve written elsewhere, play is powerful. It lowers the bar for self-judgment; it can function like oven mitts for handling sensitive subjects; it can encourage us to stretch our everyday thinking and see possibilities we might have otherwise missed. Fun is a fuel.

We could have said, Hey, this is a school project to build empathy. Bo-ring. Instead, we led with the language of secrets, superheroes, and surprise to elevate it to something memorable, meaningful, magical.

Play allowed the partners to share vulnerable stories in a safe way. One prompt—"Share the secret of your most embarrassing moment"—became a funny way of sharing values, fears, and anxieties. Because underneath the slipped bathing suits or milk-spewing nose is the nature of what you find embarrassing, and that tells a lot about a person. Is it failure? Public or individual? Loss of control? Misunderstanding? Fear itself?

Sharing a moment you wish had never happened is an act of trust and bravery. Receiving someone else’s story is a way to remember you are not alone in the world as a flawed human being.

Play allows you to do both with a smile.

The next adventure…?

While this began as a way to enrich the lives of kids and seniors, it turned out to be a powerful way of sneaking behind the unrecognized biases, the mental shortcuts that are the unacknowledged guardrails of our day-to-day thinking. What if we expanded the experience to bridge other divergent points of view related to politics, race, economics, gender, geography, or religion?

We’d love to find situations to use the Department of Super Secrets to help people hear each other in a new way. Our hope is that this combination of anonymity, story, and play can help any two strangers find common ground whether they be superdelegates or super potatoes.

*Names and details have been changed to protect secret identities

  • Ben Swire

    Design Lead, IDEO New York
    Ben is a writer at IDEO with a diverse background in financial marketing, psychoanalytic theory, and post-modern philosophy.
  • Adam Hilborn

    Senior Design Lead, IDEO New York
    Adam can be found exploring the studio in wanderlust, offering art direction, inspiration, and racy cartoons. Motivated by avant-garde art & design practitioners like Experimental Jetset or the Italian architects Superstudio, Tom Wesselman, and Tibor Kalman, he looks to bring clarity, emotion, and understanding with powerful imagery and experiences. His most recent passion is around designing for taboo, specifically around consciousness-expanding psychedelics for therapeutic and medicinal research.
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