“Only Connect”—E. M. Forster
I am equal parts eager and terrified to connect with the real live humans I haven’t seen in almost eighteen months. I am eager to leave my forced hibernation with my wonderful husband and three children to see friends, colleagues, and clients again. I’m looking forward to bursting out beyond the bubble of the handful of friends who have been my salvation through this long run of loneliness. And yet, I am terrified by what it means to do as E. M Forster reminds us and, “Only connect,” with people I haven’t seen for so long.
Do I even remember how to connect with another human?
Over the past year and a half, we relied on our digital connections for work, education, health care, shopping, banking, and social life more than any of us thought humanly possible. We went from limiting our children’s daily screen time to planting them in front of Zoom school for the day while we went off to Zoom work a few feet away. This topsy-turvy time made one thing clear: being connected via digital channels does not translate to feeling connected to other humans.
We are suffering from what I call a human experience debt. Just like financial debt and technology debt, our human experience debt is cumulative and weighs us down. A virtual chat does not replace the joy of exchanging a quick smile with an unmasked stranger at the market. Placing an online order for dinner delivery pales in comparison to holding a paper menu and hearing daily specials from a waiter. It’s no wonder America’s loneliness epidemic has worsened, with virtual communications doing little to ease the void.
In our research with over 28,000 participants, the fundamental human need for connection was one of the top three priorities organizations need to address in response to the crisis. The ability to connect depends on being able to respond to other humans with what I call the “Four principles of conscious connections:” empathy, authenticity, shared values, and support. As individuals, and as organizations, many of us may need to relearn what it means to connect with other humans.
Empathy: feel as if you can understand what another is feeling
Authenticity: acting genuinely, sharing human emotions, and being “real” to allow others to relate better
Shared values: having commonalities in beliefs, purpose, and/or goals
Support: providing psychological safety or help, especially during times of distress
Empathy is feeling as if you can feel what another is feeling. It helps us elevate the human experience for those around us. Unlike other superpowers, empathy can be taught and grows with frequent use. The key to growing your empathy? Genuinely caring for and making time for others and seeing the world from their point of view. As an individual, this often means checking on your ego, which wants to have its wants, needs, and feelings empathized with before extending empathy. As individuals and as organizations, we can improve our speed to empathy when we take a more human-centered approach to the daily problems and challenges that our workers and customers experience.
By definition, authenticity cannot be faked. Fortunately, sharing our emotions and expressing ourselves comes naturally. The challenge to being truly authentic is saying the same thing no matter who is in the room. It takes courage and vulnerability; in the words of Brené Brown, “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” By learning to show up with our authentic selves, we give others permission to express their own experiences and emotions. For individuals and organizations alike, being authentic can help us to share provocative but uncomfortable truths instead of hiding behind a mask.
Humans, like organizations, who have found their purpose—who know why they exist and who they can impact—have an advantage when it comes to building connections. Shared values help humans unite toward achieving common goals, whether organizing a neighborhood clean-up or launching a municipal solar energy initiative, bettering their communities. As organizations define the values they share with the humans they serve—and live them with every action—they can strengthen connections and make an impact where it matters most. We all have an opportunity to drive important conversations when our values and societal roles connect to long-term benefits for other humans.
What does it mean to feel safe and supported? As Maya Angelou wrote, “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.” When we feel fear, it is impossible to make connections. It is the presence of hope that allows us to begin to relax our guard and respond. Feeling safe is defined differently by individuals—each of us shows up in the way that we feel safe. A well-publicized Google study in 2015 showed that the number one factor in the successful outcomes of teams was psychological safety, where teammates felt safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. Regardless of the specific ways that people feel safe, individuals and organizations can offer “micro-affirmations” – small words of encouragement - to create space for a sense of safety.
As we step outside of our homes and home offices, many of us have so much to remember about connecting with other humans—both as individuals and as organizations. Let’s be guided by the four principles of conscious connections to grow in empathy, show up authentically, demonstrate our shared values, and support each other as we do the satisfying work of connecting.
Amelia Dunlop, Chief Experience Officer at Deloitte Digital and leader of the US Customer Strategy and Applied Design practice for Deloitte Consulting LLP, helps companies develop winning strategies that combine innovation, creativity, and digital strategy.