- Julius de Jong
How to Create Space for Connection (Episode 21-39)
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
With both ourselves and others
This morning, in the shower, I thought about what connection means to me. The feeling of wholeness came up. Separate parts being one, together. Wholeness is comprising the full quantity, extent, without diminution or exception. I believe, in essence, that is what connection is about.
Think about it. Those moments in your life where you felt truly connected, you and that other person were one. You and that bigger purpose you shared with others, united beyond your differences. It melted you together, working towards something greater than the individual parts.
Essentially, when we aim to connect, we aim to unite and become one. This is the case when connecting with ourselves, and with others. It doesn’t mean we’re giving up our individuality and uniqueness. On the other hand, it does mean giving up some, and if we’re lucky, a lot, of our ego, which often inhibits our connections as it’s primarily motivated by fear and self-centeredness.
Why connection is crucial
‘We are made for connection. It is the source of growth, discovery, joy and meaning in our short, sweet time here on Earth’ (Grazer, 2019). Connection is an essential part of our existence. For professional success, real connections are also crucial. ‘People, not money, are your most important assets; great things in business happen when the right people come together’ (Gerber and Paugh, 2018). Similarly, for our health and wellbeing. ‘Connections among people improve their health, happiness and resilience’ (Stallard, et. al. 2020). Several studies underline this premise. For instance, the long-term Harvard Grant Study, which started in 1938, found proof that that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier, and showed a clear link between social connectedness and stronger relationships, career success, health, and longevity among the 238 people it has followed for decades (Mineo, 2017). ‘Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives’ the study showed (Mineo, 2017). ‘Social connection is a primal human need that appears to improve the performance of the body’s cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ (Stallard, et. al. 2020). Another long-durational study of the two American towns of Roseto and the immediately adjacent Bangor showed that citizens in Roseto enjoyed better health and longer lives than the average American. This was due to their unusual – by US standards – levels of connectedness and their high degree of community involvement (Egolf et. al., 1992). We are, by definition, social beings. We crave connection. Both with ourselves, and others. ‘Connection is what transforms a dog-eat-dog environment into a sled dog team that pulls together’ (Stallard, et. al. 2020).
Connection with ourselves precedes connection with others
Before we can connect with others, we need to be able to connect with ourselves. I’ve written about this in my previous posts on finding your unique yourself and daring to be and show yourself. Contrary to what’s expected based on external stimuli and feedback, we need to learn to listen to ourselves, and shape our life based on that. This process requires us to be present, something for which our breathing can be an invaluable tool. It also requires tremendous courage and vulnerability to show our imperfect selves to the world. When we are able to embrace who we are and who we are becoming, only then will we become able to be fully present with that other person we are connecting with. Only then we can become whole in our diversity and uniqueness. Only then we can fully connect. ‘To develop into a leader who helps others connect, take care of yourself first. Deepen your connections with your family and friends, share vulnerabilities and worries, exercise, get enough sleep, eat well, spend time outdoors, nurture a creative hobby and substitute a good habit for a bad one.’ (Stallard, et. al. 2020). It’s like in the airplane; ‘put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others.
Show yourself, and give up perfection
To learn more about connection, I spoke with Michelle K. Johnston, a professor of management at Loyola University New Orleans in leadership and communication and an executive coach. During our conversation she shared with me how she realized that she wasn’t showing her full and true self in her work as an executive coach and professor. This insight formed the seed for writing the immensely practical book on connection, ‘The Seismic Shift in Leadership’. As she shared during our talk; in one year time, three of her coaching clients had lost their jobs. The central point of feedback for them had been ‘[w]e can’t trust this person; we don’t know who they are. They’re fake, and there is a wall up’ (Johnston, 2021). This resulted in Michelle reflecting on herself and concluding she hadn’t been the right example as their coach. She too realized there was a wall up, and that she wasn’t showing her true and full self. Also, in her teaching as a professor she realized that her students were missing out on her real person. Instead, they got a mask of what she thought was expected of her. I can very much relate to this.
For me personally, I have been through a similar process of showing the world what I thought it wanted and expected of me. As I shared in my post on daring to be, and show yourself, I wore a mask of knowing all the answers, being in control, and knowing where I was going. While in actuality, I felt hopeless, confused, and without any true sense of direction. In those days, I believed people would reject me and wouldn’t want anything to do with me if they’d seen that true side of myself. Instead, because of this wall between me and the people around me, and the discrepancy between what I was experiencing and projecting, people couldn’t really connect with me. When I finally couldn’t bear any more pretense and dropped my mask while owning up to my imperfections, insecurities, and concerns, I connected with the people around me unlike anything ever before. Trying to be someone we’re not and trying to give people what we think they want of us; it merely results in disconnect. As Michelle writes so accurately in her book, we need to let go of perfection. Instead of trying to be perfect, we need to learn to just be, and show ourselves. Because if we hide pieces of ourselves, we are creating a barrier between us and those we interact with (Johnston, 2022). ‘The most successful […] relationships, like any good relationships, start from a place of authenticity and pure intentions’ (Grazer, 2019). When we aren’t real with the people around us, they know. ‘Our brains have evolved special cells known as mirror neurons that attune us to others, so we can feel what they feel, instantly, reflexively and effortlessly’ (Gelb, 2017). Therefore, let’s stop wasting time for both ourselves and others, and show up as we are without pretending and trying to be perfect.
The context of leadership: perfection equals disconnection
‘To develop into a leader who helps others connect, take care of yourself first’ (Stallard, et. al. 2020). What I wrote above about showing ourselves, is equally true in the context of leadership. As executive coach Marshall Goldsmith said, ‘leaders are held hostage by how other people perceive them’. When those leaders, who Michelle Johnston was coaching, lost their jobs, their team members didn’t trust them. ‘When a leader loses trust with its team, he is no longer a leader. Trust is the essence of leadership’ (Johnston, 2021). Lack of trust results because of inauthenticity, and for the leader to be perceived as fake. Because of this, it is crucial for a leader to be real. To show him or herself. To be imperfect. It is ‘[the leaders] who think that they have to be perfect [which] tend not to connect well with their teams’ (Johnston, 2022). A leader doesn’t need to be perfect or to have the answers. Helgesen and Goldsmith call this the ‘Perfection Trap’, identifying the following negative outcomes associated with the pursuit of perfection:
Striving to be perfect creates stress for you and those around you;
Striving to be perfect keeps you riveted on details, distracting you from the big-picture orientation that’s expected when you reach a senior leadership position;
Striving to be perfect creates a negative mindset in which you’re bothered by every little thing that goes wrong, since even a small mistake can “ruin” the whole;
Striving to be perfect sets you up for disappointment for the simple reason that it’s unrealistic. You, and the people who work with and for you, will never be perfect.
‘Leaders who believe that they have to appear perfect at all times are not perceived as authentic. They are seen as disingenuous, fake, and insincere’ (Johnston, 2022) Instead, a good leader needs to ask questions, dare to be vulnerable, and support its team members. With someone like that we can connect. With someone like that we feel safe and supported to make mistakes.
Shift in leadership
Instead of leading from power and inducing fear, the new leader is leading from connection. This is the shift in leadership as described in Michelle Johnston's new book. ‘The old leadership characteristics of power, control, and fear are becoming more and more obsolete. Contrasting this, the leaders who were showing compassion, who weren’t doing all the talking, but instead listening more. The servant leaders who showed another way (Johnston, 2021). ‘Authenticity, compassion, and alignment are the new paths to leadership success’ (Johnston, 2022). Power is necessary in leadership, but it needs to be redefined. ‘A leader’s new power lies in his or her ability to connect’ (Johnston, 2022). As Michelle explained during our talk, ‘authoritative leadership style based on power and control, ruling with an iron fist ultimately leads to the creation of cultures of fear. That is why this type of leader loses the trust of the people they lead, as people don’t feel safe. Not debating the effectiveness of it, this is what the leadership style was for years and years’ (Johnston, 2021). It was this type of leader who didn’t knew his/her people’s first names and walked right to the corner office while being on their phone as Michelle illustrates. However, in times of COVID-19, with its continuous video calls and virtual face time, there was no hiding in the corner office anymore. ‘Leaders had to care, address the dog that jumped in your lap during the videocall and baby that was crying in the background. Leaders had to connect’ (Johnston, 2021).
Connection between people emerges when we can relate to each other. When we perceive the other person as real and trustworthy. Authenticity is about the alignment in representing one’s true nature or beliefs; being true to oneself in the way one manifests and expresses him or herself. When we act in alignment with our beliefs, values, and vision, we will walk with our heads high, no matter our environment or circumstances. In organizations the same is true. There needs to be an alignment between the organizational vision and values, and those of its people. The organizational culture is the medium for this. ‘Leaders must take the initiative in building a ‘connection culture’ by combining vision [and] value[s]’ (Stallard, et. al. 2020). Building on the work of A.H. Maslow, Edward Deci, and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl, Stallard et. al. identified that people in the workplace need the following aspects for a culture in which they can feel connected:
Respect.They need to be treated well and to treat others as they’d like to be treated;
Recognition. They need regular praise and specific acknowledgment of good work;
Belonging. They need to be included, have a voice and work with people who care for one another;
Autonomy. They need to determine for themselves how to work and should be allowed to complete their tasks without micromanagement;
Personal growth. They need work that matches their strengths and interests, so they can find a pace and level of challenge that leads to a state of flow;
Meaning.They need to connect their work to a higher purpose;
Progress. They need to experience steady results and growth.
‘When it comes to the relational aspects, there is a best culture: a culture that has a high degree of human connection’ (Stallard, et. al. 2020).
‘To connect, you must communicate’ (Maxwell, 2010). Connection is built, or destroyed, by how we communicate, and how we listen. To enhance connection, we need to communicate in our own style. When we don’t, people pick up on it. Therefore, communicate in your own style and be true to yourself. Don’t try to emulate someone else’s style. As Michelle Johnston suggests in her new book, to connect successfully and motivate those around us, we need to understand our strengths and blind spots as communicators. We need to understand the preferential style of communication of our audience, and tailor our messages accordingly (Johnston, 2022).
In addition to the above, Riaz Meghji also has a great list to help us clarify our intent in digital communications, as is increasingly the case due to the pandemic. It’s easy to be misunderstood in any case, but this is especially true when communicating digitally. Focusing and clearly articulating our intent is very helpful in this regard. Some best practices and practical tips for this according to Meghji are:
Use emojis when appropriate – Basic icons, such as thumbs-up symbols and smiley faces, help the recipient of a text-based message understand your desired tone;
Describe your emotions in video and voice calls – Use words to convey specific emotions. For example, you could say, “I’m thrilled to be starting this conversation;
Be energetic – People will find you more sincere if you communicate energetically than when you speak monotonously;
Don’t stare at your self-view – When you’re having video calls, hide the window displaying your own face to avoid feeling self-conscious and distracting yourself;
Record yourself – Make a video of yourself reading something you’ve prepared, and watch it. Reflect on your performance, particularly on your effectiveness in conveying emotions. Make adjustments as necessary before attempting a live video call;
Present ideas interactively – People struggle to keep focusing during long video calls. If you’re the call’s host or presenter, engage (Meghji, 2021).
Listen, show appreciation, and follow-up
‘The most called-upon prerequisite of a friend is an accessible ear’ (Maxwell, 2010). Even more so than how we communicate, is how we listen critically for establishing and retaining connections. ‘Research shows that people feel closer to conversation partners who express curiosity’ (Meghji, 2021). Therefore, ‘[l]istening can be just as powerful as talking, if not more, when it comes to establishing a bond with another person’ (Grazer, 2019). I’ve written on listening before, and I recommend anyone interested in making better connections to read this post in addition to the one you’re reading now. When we listen, we need to give the other person our sincere interest and attention. Listening shows the other person they matter to us, and that we appreciate them. ‘We don’t always know what’s going on inside a person’s mind or heart. But we always have the opportunity to support the people we love by reaching out, leaning in and just listening’ (Meghji, 2021). In his book ‘Every Conversation Counts’, author Riaz Meghji lists a number of simple actions which can help show people you appreciate them and that you care about what they have to say:
Take notes. Jot down notes about new people you meet. Refer to your notes before you see them next;
Remember names. Focus on other people’s faces when they tell you their names. To further cement a name in your memory, ask a question about the name, such as how to spell it. Or make a connection between the name and something/someone else. You can also try using a person’s name in conversation;
Give people access to you. To build trust with others and make them feel valued, share something with them that you don’t share with everybody you meet;
Praise them. Pay people specific compliments about things they’ve done. Note concrete ways their actions positively affected you or others;
Celebrate milestones. Create unforgettable experiences for people to help them celebrate their milestone moments.
As Michelle Johnston shared with me during our talk on connection, we need to actively listen, summarize, but also implement (Johnston, 2021). ‘You need to use what the other person told you. Follow-up. Show them that you’ve listened and show them what you’ve done with it. Be honest about what you can’t do, and show them what you will do’ (Johnston, 2021). When we do this, people learn that we’ve paid attention, and what they can expect of us. This helps build trust, which in turn leads to stronger connections. ‘When trust is high, the dividend you receive is like a performance multiplier, elevating and improving every dimension of your organization and your life’ (Covey and Merrill, 2006).
Be interested in others and (really) see them
‘Warm connections depend on recognizing and acknowledging other people’s value’ (Maxwell, 2010). It is crucially important that we recognize and focus on other people, instead of ourselves, in case we want to connect. If you want to be successful as a leader, you got to figure out how to show interest in the other person and how to care (Johnston, 2021). The story of the pup Tippy in the book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie illustrates this beautifully. The author wrote, reflecting back on his pup; ‘You never read a book on psychology, Tippy. You didn’t need to. You knew by some divine instinct that you can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you’ (Carnegie, 1998).
Be authentically interested in other people. ‘You never know what someone might have to teach you. You never know which conversation will be the most important in your life. Stay open. Stay curious’ (Meghji, 2021). Ask questions, and read my post on asking questions for some help along the way in this regard. I know from experience that open questions, and simple and real curiosity for the people around us, no matter their rank or social status, can open us up to a new world of learning, opportunity, and connection. In many cases, all we need for this is to see someone, and smile. ‘In a world where our attention is too often focused downward or elsewhere, simply lifting your eyes to meet another’s gaze can be transformative’ (Grazer, 2019). A good example that helps with really seeing and connecting with people is illustrated by Sam Walton’s 10-Foot Rule. Walmart employees make a pledge based on Walton’s beliefs: ‘I solemnly promise and declare that every time a customer comes within 10 feet of me, I will smile, look him in the eye and greet him’ (Maxwell, 2010). I believe we will all benefit from adapting this rule.
Finding Common Ground
The best way to connect with others is to find common ground. To identify territory you share, learn more about the people you want to reach (Maxwell, 2010). As taken from John Maxwell’s book, ‘Everyone Communicates, Few Connect’, this is not easy for everyone, most of the time because of one or more of the following four reasons:
Assumptions: I already know what others know, feel and want. When you generalize, you often make errors. Don’t stereotype people and think that you have nothing to learn from them;
Arrogance: I don’t need to know what others know, feel or want. The core of building relationships is caring about others and trying to understand them;
Indifference: I don’t care to know what others know, feel or want. People who feel this way focus only on themselves and can’t possibly connect with others;
Control: I don’t want others to know what I know, feel or want. If you withhold yourself and your knowledge from your employees, expect morale to plunge.
Instead, withhold your assumptions, arrogance, indifference, or control, and be surprised how much we actually have in common as people. We all want to be seen, heard, loved, and give love. We’re not so different, after all. Therefore, let’s find common ground with the people around us and discover we’re not so different after all.
Own your calendar, own your focus
In closing, I want to share a big personal eye-opener I got from talking to Michelle Johnston and from reading her new book. It’s so obvious, and right there in front of us every day of the week. Still, I overlook this way too often, while it is something that can greatly enhance my connection with both myself, and others. It is (more actively and intentionally) managing my own calendar. Taking (more) charge of my meetings. Shifting from reacting, to acting. As Michelle shared, ‘as a leader or business owner, you have to think about who your most important stakeholders and customers are, and you have to spend time with them’ (Johnston, 2021). Owning your calendar is the essence of leadership, as it determines all of your communication and connection, every day, every week, and every month. We need to ask ourselves (much more), ‘who is most important and how often should I be meeting with them?’ Personally, I must admit I don’t do this enough. Nor what precedes this, which is making sure I have enough time to strategically think. Michelle had some great and practical tips for this:
Where possible, book 30-minute (Zoom/Teams) meetings, instead of 60-minute ones. This forces both yourself and your meeting partners to be more concrete and to the point, and it saves everyone valuable time. Also, when you’re in control of your meetings, and schedule them, you want to connect;
Make your lunchtime sacred. Instead of reacting and complaining, we need to be in control of our time so we can spend it most effectively and productively, and as a result of that, connect in the most meaningful way. Taking care of ourselves is an important ingredient for that, as is our lunch. Don’t eat your sandwich behind your screen. Instead, focus on the food, and take a moment away from your work, and focus on you;
Make sure that your perfect time to think is, and stays, reserved for that and nothing else. We all have moments of the day where we’re the most clear-headed and focused. Use this time for strategic thinking, planning, and reflection. Don’t use this precious time on email, reacting, or other transactional work or meetings scheduled by other people. Use this time for you, and your thinking. In case you do have meetings during these clear-headed and focused hours, make sure they are in line with your goals and serve a clear purpose, or use them to really connect. Instead of everything being about what everyone else wants, create sacred days or at least moments which are your own. Use this time to think, reflect, and be creative (Johnston, 2021).
When we do this, our work and productivity will inevitably improve, as will our connections. Both with ourselves, and others. Then, when connecting with our full intention, attention, and focus, we will become one with our vision and goals and the people with whom we work on turning these into reality with. In the process, let’s not forget to serve and give more then we receive, as ultimately, it’s not about me, but us.
Image: 'Couple Human Standing Connection', mixed media, by Benjavisa Ruangvaree, 2019.
Human relations, our lives; it is all about connection with each other. Therefore, to learn more about human connection, I talked to Michelle Johnston, PH.D., an expert in the field. Michelle is an executive coach and management professor at Loyola University New Orleans focusing on leadership and business communication. She is a leadership expert helping leaders achieve results through meaningful connection. Her research has shown a clear link between communication in a company and its positive financial performance. No surprise to me!
Michelle is also about to launch her new book titled ‘The Seismic Shift in Leadership’, which releases on February 22, 2022. I’ve been privileged to have received a copy prior to official publication, and simply loved the book. It’s practical, engaging, and full of inspiring examples of people both succeeding and failing in human connection, allowing the reader to learn from both sides. We have talked about her book, but also about her personal experiences of connection and disconnect, and the lessons learnt in the process. To anyone interested in connecting more with both him/herself and others, I believe you’ll enjoy both this talk and her book.
Website of Michelle K. Johnston: https://michellekjohnston.com
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