“Who is a person in your life that you are yearning to be closer to?”
This was the question that Lisa Gale and I asked a room of over 150 technologists, civic leaders, policymakers, and funders at Salon:Live, an event we co-hosted with our friends and partners at Unfinished, on the transformative power of human connection in the context of our digital future. We gathered that night with the animating purpose of shaping technology in service of building a thriving multiracial, multiethnic, and multifaith democracy.
A quietness washed over the room after we posed the question and instructed everybody to close their eyes. People softly exhaled as they leaned back against their chairs and dropped their shoulders. We asked everyone to visualize the person who came to mind before they turned to their partner and shared their answer: Who is a person you want to be more connected to? What do they look like? How did you meet? What is your relationship with them? What is your favorite memory of them? We also prompted the listeners to ask at least one follow-up question in Parker Palmer’s tradition of open, honest questions, ones that you “could not possibly know the answer to.”
As we released the pause, a cacophony of stories filled the space. People chose the depth of vulnerability that they were willing to go to with their anecdotes. Some talked about their relationships with their parents, others about their spouses or childhood friends. Some spoke about people who have passed away, and others spoke of people who are confronting their own struggles. Yearning to be closer often takes us there. The exchanges that took place between two humans – most strangers to one another when the evening began – were an act of vulnerability and empathic listening. It was the practice of asking a seemingly simple question that brought them closer together.
Photos by Sawyer Roque.
So, why did we invite people, many of whom are in the same networks but were meeting for the first time, to be vulnerable with one another?
Because small moments of connection like this are what we need to build trust, a core element in any healthy relationship, before we can come together to solve bigger societal challenges. Whether it is an intimate conversation with a friend, discussion over proposed changes in a PTA meeting, or disagreement about the path forward with a coalition partner, when we bring vulnerability, curiosity, and empathy to our interactions, we allow others to feel seen, heard, and valued. This foundation of trust gives us more capacity to reach across difference, find a shared purpose, and practice repair when the relationship is strained or broken.
Reverend Jen Bailey, our friend and founder of the Faith Matters Network, puts this beautifully: “Social change happens at the speed of relationships. And relationships move at the speed of trust.” To realize the positive social change we are after, we need to tend to our existing connections and expand our circle of concern to include people who have different identities, lived experiences, and viewpoints from ours – even when we dislike what they may have to say. We can deepen our relationships with a loved one or even a stranger by initiating heartfelt conversations, asking great questions, and listening with intentionality.
What seems like minute interactions can add up and have positive ripple effects on our individual and societal health. Relationships can boost our immune system, increase our motivation level, and stretch our lifespan. Job performance improves when we have stronger ties to our colleagues. And high collective trust is correlated with lower rates of violence and stronger economic growth.
Building trust-filled relationships is at the heart of my work, not as a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. Over the past 15 years of leading Einhorn Collaborative, I have had the honor of supporting and learning from field builders who recognize the crisis of connection in our country and took charge to heal our division through innovative and community-led solutions. Our partnerships did not start with a grant application, but a series of conversations to better understand one another, in an effort to cultivate connection, bond over shared values, learn from our differences, build trust, and foster a sense of belonging for all involved. This groundwork allows us to not run from hard conversations when they arise but come to them with empathy and curiosity. Our work is stronger due to the diversity of thoughts, identities, political affiliations, and geography in our ecosystem – and we are better for it.
“Listening is an act of love.”
– Dave Isay, Founder & President of StoryCorps
The heart work of building trust and connections matters, especially now in a time of heightened polarization and division. All of us are afflicted by a pernicious perception gap, where our views and beliefs of the “other side” are dramatically more polarizing that they are in actuality, widened by our personalized social media feeds, which stoke fear and distrust, and lead us to believe that we are more divided than we actually are. While it is critical that we have systemic solutions to get at the complexity and severity of these problems, I also believe that we can tap into the innate tool that all of us already have – the radically old technology of human connection – to build community and repair fractures in our country.
In “Community: The Structure of Belonging”, Peter Block writes:
“What makes community building so complex is that it occurs in an infinite number of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of our eye. It calls for us to treat as important many things that we thought were incidental. An afterthought becomes the point; a comment made in passing defines who we are more than all that came before. If the artist is one who captures the nuance of experience, then this is whom each of us must become.”
Let us take on the role of the artist and build our communities upon infinite small moments of connection, trust, and belonging.