Use these 4 questions to deepen your social connections

A few months ago I wrote about the powerful program called Lifebook, which helps to create a business plan for your life.  In other words, it makes you look at your life holistically by listing down on paper what your beliefs in 12 categories (health and fitness, character, social, romantic relationships, parenting, spiritual, emotional & intellectual wellbeing, career, finance, quality of life & life vision)  of your life are, where you stand and what you’d like to achieve.
This program helped me trip over the truth and see my life in a new and more realistic light. So being a Lifebook graduate and a huge fan of this program, I am interested to know what revelations other people have while assessing their overall wellbeing and noting down a compelling vision for their future.
I was surprised when after going through the 4 days of reflection,  several people turned to me for advice on strengthening social connections – “I realized I need to open up more in order to strengthen my social connections. I talk a lot about what I do but not who I am” – one friend told me.
Inspired by their questions this post was born.
The great American poet Maya Angelou suggests there are four questions that we’re all unconsciously asking each other all the time.  We are asking these questions without words to each person we meet – would it be your lover, your boss or a cashier in a grocery store – and based on the answer we form connections:
  1. Do you see me?
  2. Do you care that I’m here?
  3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
  4. Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?
People who don’t get an answer to these questions (or worse, who receive a ‘no’) feel increasingly disconnected from any sense of community. Therefore it is important to reflect how we show up in the presence of other people, especially the ones we care about.
Here’s an example. Around a week ago, I walked into a company managers meeting  – as a proxy -, which I usually don’t participate in.  My warm and energetic “hello” was met with a few greetings back, several glances over a smartphone and ignored by a majority of people. So my head instantly started processing all of the meaning-making stories, such as “I am not good enough”, “I don’t deserve to be here”… You got the point. I just simply received “no” to most of 4 Maya Angelou’s questions of belonging. It terminated the reciprocity, freezing the relationship.
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Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
Brene Brown, in her book “Braving the wilderness: the quest for belonging and the courage to stand alone” describes the feeling of feeling lonely while being in a social setting. It is really easy to feel lonely while not alone if the group bonds or your bonds with the group are not strong enough.And you know what forms a connection? You may say, it is the time we spend together or what we do with the people.

No.

The connection is based on a quality of presence. And to actually see someone or care about that person, or, in other words, answer positively to the 4 fundamental questions above, you need to be present. You see, it’s part of human nature to crave a personal contact – a meeting of eyes, a smile – the social reinforcement, even if with strangers.

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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

So I will give a positive story, opposing to my managers’ meeting experience for a contrast, to emphasize how connections with strangers happen.  This morning I was in a flowers shop, with a goal to buy flowers for my colleague’s birthday. With a task at hand and my headphones on, I had 0 willingness to talk to anyone. Yet while paying at the cash desk, one of the shop managers, a bold man in his fifties approached me:

“Excuse me, are you Danish?” – oh, it’s one of these “Where are you from? How do you like Malaysian food?” type of conversations, I thought to myself.
“No” – I answered, unwilling to expand. I could feel the presence of his stare, exploring and assessing the color of my hair and skin.
“You definitely look Danish” – the man said again after a long break. I felt like I need to respond.
” I am from Lithuania, it is a tiny country in Europe near Denmark”.

Later he told me that he had visited my country and we exchanged some uplifting phrases for the day. This conversation happened because his answer to the 4 questions was “YES”, including the way he looked at me.

Interestingly enough, while those 4 questions can form a connection, it is not enough to form a deep bond and make a friend. As Chip and Dan Heath tell us in a book “The Power of Moments”, apparently, responsiveness doesn’t lead to a meaningful relationship. However, when responsiveness is coupled with openness and intimacy,  bonds can develop quickly. And most importantly, the secret lies in turn – taking. 

Here’s how it happens: One person reveals something and waits if the other person will share something back. If he does, it is a strong sign of understanding, validation, and caring. It gives a signal to our heads: I’ve heard you, I understand and accept what you’re saying, and I care for you enough to disclose something about myself.

 

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Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash

You might have heard about lists of powerful questions to ask someone (If you’re looking for inspiration, download the app called “Storycorps”), but to my surprise, it is not even the magic of a question, but the turn-taking that creates a deep intimacy and bond with another. It is all about an escalated cycle of vulnerability, coupled with the look in the eyes – I see you, I hear you. And I am just like you, imperfect.  

The key point, however, is that this cycle will not begin naturally. You must start it and it takes pushing beyond a small talk.
So here’s the challenge for you: In a few upcoming days, share something personal but true to yourself with a person you like but never talk to – say, a colleague at work. You can start by taking a little step by elaborating where you stand in life when people ask “How are you?” Providing more insight or opening up about the challenges you currently face, will allow your partner to take the conversation to a higher level.
I’d like to leave you with this idea – relationships don’t deepen naturally. And In the absence of action, they will halt. So it is important that all of us become more aware of the way we show up (to answer the 4 questions positively), embrace intimacy and share something personal. All of these combined will be your secret recipe for deep and meaningful social connections.
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