I was recently at a social event and ran into a colleague who had recently retired. I had been at the event for awhile, and wanted to go home. My first instinct was to try to cut the conversation short as I thought about all the things I needed (wanted?) to get done. But because I have been trying to be more mindful of connecting, I caught myself and shifted my attitude in mid-conversation. My friend was sharing some very meaningful things about his transition into the next stage of his life and I realized that this was a precious moment to be present and connect. I slowed down internally and let the connection unfold. We talked for quite awhile. We both shared things we were going through and encouraged each other. I left the conversation feeling enriched and fulfilled.
We’re often so focused on “what’s next” that we miss the opportunity to connect with people in the here and now.
If we slow down to be physically and emotionally present, we create moments of meaning that build our well being and have the potential to develop deep friendships. For leaders, being present is crucial to create a culture in which people feel connected to each other and to the vision of the organization.
Barbara Frederickson notes that love, or what I would call connection, has three components :
1. Sharing positive emotions. I would add here that sharing negative emotions can produce connection as well. Sharing positive emotions creates an uplifting sense of resonance. But sharing negative emotions in the sense of being with someone in their pain also produces a positive sense of connection. It creates a sense that we’re both working toward the same goal, which is to bring understanding and comfort to the one in pain.
2. Synchrony between you and another’s biochemistry and behavior.
3. A mutual motive to promote the other’s well being.
There are two preconditions to these components.
1. Perception of safety. The most important word here is perception. Your perception of an event determines how it impacts you; not just the event itself. This is influenced by your life history, past and current relationships, and your current state of mind. So, if you perceive that another person is safe, you’ll be open to connect. If you don’t perceive safety, you’ll shut down and won’t be open to share your emotions. I recall an author who wrote that he’d never heard of a bear attacking someone without being provoked, but it’s the bear, not you, who decides if it’s provoked. It’s the bear’s perception that matters. Likewise, it’s your perception of safety and the other’s perception of safety that matters in determining the possibility of connection.
2. Real time physical presence. Eye contact is crucial and smiles draws people to your eyes and promote an emerging connection. When children play in the same proximity with no eye contact you have what’s called “parallel play,” but not connection. Smiles and shared positive emotions help us come to feel the same way and be in sync, or attuned with each other. Smiles, it turns out, are for connection.
Here are 5 mindset shifts to help you promote connection in your life and leadership.
1. Foster safety in your relationships.
You can’t control others’ perceptions, of course, but you can do your part to be a safe person for connection. Whether it’s with friends or employees, take the time to listen and truly understand. When someone feels understood, it builds trust and safety and opens them up for connection.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of physical presence.
In our digital age, the speed of information often becomes the catalyst for disconnection. Of course, face to face communication isn’t always possible, but when it is, take advantage of it as much as possible. It’s faster and easier to communicate digitally than it is in person. It’s tempting to think we’re really not missing anything when we forego real time physical presence. But we are. Eye contact and seeing ourselves reflected in another’s face activates parts of the self that are not activated any other way. So, as often as you can, take the time to sit down with a friend, colleague, or employee. If you’re leading and managing others, some things are better communicated in person. It’s time consuming to reach out and meet with your people in person, but the value it produces in creating a positive and productive culture is exponential.
3. Be fully present.
Give up thinking about where else you could be or what else you could be getting done. Be emotionally present, not just physically present. People pick up, at a gut level, mismatches between your outward actions and inner experiences. How often is your mind elsewhere when you’re talking to someone? Try to be where you are now so you don’t miss the opportunity to connect. Part of being present is to share things about yourself that are meaningful. It involves being vulnerable by sharing both positive and negative emotions. I mentioned above that incident in which I was thinking about what I had to get done and not present in a conversation. It’s so easy to slip into this mindset without realizing it. Be aware of this and over time you’ll be able to catch yourself doing this more quickly when it happens.
For leaders, sometimes the most important thing you can do right now is slow down, and connect. It’s the hardest thing to do because you don’t get to check off a box on your to-do list. There’s no easily measurable reward. The reward is a feeling of fulfillment that you’ll never get from checking something off your to-do list. The reward is also a culture that cares and connects and performs in the long run because of that sense of connection.
4. Be mindful of how efficiency can hinder connection.
Believe me, I’m all for efficiency. In fact, I’ve been sufficiently obsessed with efficiency and productivity that it’s hindered my own ability to connect over the years. The storms of life have helped me to realize this and I’m trying to change this and develop new habits. I’m writing as much to myself as to you. As an example, sometimes it’s easier to have my kids get a ride somewhere rather than take the time to drive them. It might cause me to go “out of my way” to drive them. But I also miss the potential to connect with my sons. Some of our most meaningful conversations happen while we’re traveling from point A to point B. Maybe you can have a meeting while walking with someone rather than talking on the phone.
Connection and relationships are messy and inefficient by their very nature. But they are what make our lives meaningful and give us a sense of vitality. Sometimes, you need to throw efficiency to the wind and go down the winding, inefficient road of connecting.
5. Be mindful of the unique individuals in your life each day.
Often we’re not open to connect with people that appear different from us. We shut down, turn the other way, give non-verbal signals that we’re busy. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But if you open yourself, you can often find common ground with people who are different than you. And regardless of their similarities or differences, each person is unique. Their uniqueness can enrich your life if you’ll let it.
To recap: 1. be present; 2. be open; 3. be vulnerable.
 Barbara Frederickson. Love 2.0. (New York. Hudson Street Press, 2013).