Connection is a Practice: Our Approach to Training Leaders to Connect


We study the practice of connection and train leaders to deepen their capacity to connect with others. By connection, we don’t mean putting people in touch, saying whatever’s on our mind, or adding someone on LinkedIn. Connection is meaningfully and authentically relating to others. It means you show up as yourself and you discuss something that matters — something that deepens your understanding of one another. It also means being aware and intentional.

In training leaders in how to connect, we use a methodology grounded in understanding the way our minds work (neuroscience), changing how we create mental constructs (contemplative practice), and transforming our habitual behaviors towards others (behavioral psychology). Ultimately, this work in connection needs to be put into action. However, no prescriptive, 5-step guide can help you to connect with others. People are incredibly attuned to when you speak or act in discordance with what you really think. Connection is a practice that needs to be embodied. Specifically, we need to cultivate practices across three dimensions in order to deepen our connection with others: awareness, caring, and action.

But why is this kind of connection important to begin with? Authentic and meaningful connection matters to our personal wellbeing. Take a moment to reflect on this statistic: the probability of dying early is 20% higher for obese people, 30% higher for excessive drinkers, 50% higher for smokers, but 70% higher for people with poor social relationships. The prevailing myth is that we’re getting increasingly lonely because we’re more isolated and alone. However, research shows that even people who are surrounded by others and are socially well connected can be incredibly lonely. It’s the quality, not the quantity, of social connections that matters.

The problem is that we never receive training in how to authentically and meaningfully connect with others. For most of human history, for tens and thousands of years, we lived in small groups of 10 to 100 individuals and we knew each other intimately. A sense of privacy or loneliness was rare. It’s only been in the last 200 years that we’ve been predominantly laborers and office workers, and are increasingly surrounded by people we don’t know. So, while we retain that innate desire to connect with people, the ability to connect with people we don’t know or trust is not something we’re familiar with. We need training and practices to learn how to do this. The good news, connection can be learned and cultivated.

The first dimension for establishing authentic and meaningful connection, where it all begins, is having an awareness of your mind. This concept is commonly referred to as mindfulness, but we think about mindfulness differently in 2 major ways: in the intention behind the practice and in how it’s practiced. Mindfulness has largely been promoted thus far as a practice for benefiting the self, such as to improve productivity or to relieve stress. We take this further and use mindfulness not with the intention to benefit oneself, but also with the intention to benefit others. What does that mean exactly? We use it to be more intentional about how we interact with and impact others — this means being mindful of how our emotions and thoughts are causing us to think and behave.

Research shows that our minds are wandering 47% of the time. That means for almost half our waking lives, we’re not even present or in the moment. Research also shows that our brains are wired to connect to each other, or said another way, we are wired to “sync” with others. In fact, the more we sync, the less our brains recognize self-other distinctions. Mindfulness therefore helps us stay aware of the fact that we are interacting with someone else, and then of the emotions that the other person may triggering in us. It gives us the space to be present and intentional.

The second way we think of mindfulness differently is in how we ask leaders to practice it. In addition to a daily meditation practice, mindfulness needs to be practiced in daily behaviors. This is because in today’s world, we spend the majority of our time at work with other people, not on a mountain meditating. If we spend the majority of your time at work being stressed, reactive, or judgmental, then we are training your mind to be stressed and reactive. However, if we can shift our practice of mindfulness into daily life, then we can use every interaction as a practice ground to develop awareness.

Once we’ve practiced and cultivated greater awareness, the second dimension we work on is caring. When we say caring, we don’t mean loving everyone or even liking them for that matter. We mean two things: First, that we can recognize the humanity in the other person, that they want happiness and do not want to suffer and; Second, that we have a genuine intention to be of benefit. How often have you been in a conversation where you’re responding without reflecting on what you want to say or how you can actually help the other person? When we mean caring, we’re talking about bringing intentionality and benefit into every interaction. This is difficult to do, and there a lot of practices we use to help leaders integrate this into their daily life.

One of the practices I want to highlight is how to generate a genuine intention to be of benefit when it’s difficult. It’s typically easier to want to benefit people we agree with or want to help. It’s much harder to do this when we’re working with someone who aggravates us or with whom we completely disagree, but still need to work with. So how do we apply this concept of seeing another person as a human being in these situations?

This was the situation for one of the leaders that we’ve worked with. She was working to improve women’s education in India and she needed to work with an Indian bureaucrat who was a major stakeholder in the education system. When she talked to him about her work, he told her, “Women should not be educated. They should be wives.” As you can imagine, this did not go over so well. She realized quickly that facts or science were not going to help her. How could she approach the next conversation?

We discussed getting to a place of awareness, and recognizing her own emotional triggers. We then talked about caring and explored how she could witness the humanity in this man. One of our practices is to use first principles, or self-evident truths, in order to better relate to someone else. First principles don’t rely on other information or support in order to be true. For example, “all men are mortal” is a common example of a first principle. What if she could lead the conversation with, “We all love our mothers don’t we? And when our mothers are educated our family benefits, right?” In this way, in finding shared values, she could unveil the real fears behind his point of view. It provides openness and spaciousness to approach the conversation.

Once we’ve practiced awareness and caring, the final step is taking action. To establish genuine connection, we can embody awareness and caring but we need to act differently in order for others to understand our intention.

A few months ago, I was talking to my Lyft driver about the work that we do at Leading Through Connection. He was an older gentleman and was driving Lyft because he enjoyed meeting new people. He told me his story. He had been a Vice President in one of the major publishing companies during the time that the industry was going belly up. He had been tasked to lay off 20 of his closest friends, friends he had worked with for decades. He agreed with the direction of the organization, but he had no idea how to approach these conversations. So, he received training and a script. To this day, those conversations haunt him and many of his friends don’t speak to him anymore. He did what had to be done, but he had also disconnected from his own humanity in those conversations. He had disconnected from his feelings about the situation and from his friends’ experiences and, instead, followed a script.

There are a number of great tools out there that we can use to help us lead people and communicate better, but many of them were developed in cultures with traditional command-and-control styles of leadership. These tools need to be accompanied by awareness and caring in order to be holistically effective and maintain connection between leaders and their teams. We’ve developed a number of tools as part of our program that bring all three dimensions together, such as “Connecting in Team Meetings” or “Having Conversations that Matter” or “Navigating Difficult Conversations.” And, we’re constantly learning and developing new tools based on how leaders bring these ideas into new approaches in their leadership.

In Summary

We are not here to present you with yet another leadership framework. Connection is a practice. We are talking about the embodiment of a different way of thinking and being that starts with awareness and an intention to be of benefit to others. It has to come from within. Information doesn’t lead to transformation. Only being does that. And being requires practice and action.

The three dimensions of connection — awareness, caring, and action — build on each other in a virtuous cycle. Awareness is the basis for seeing reality as it is and caring is ensuring that there’s a genuine intention to be of benefit in our interactions. When they come together in our actions, they deepen our awareness of ourselves and others, and increase our ability to be of benefit.

Our goal at Leading Through Connection is to support leaders to build these skills for authentic and meaningful connection. We do this by sharing this methodology as well as training leaders in these practices through an 8-week coaching and online program. Connection is possible in every interaction. If we can strengthen your ability to choose how we connect, it has a direct impact, not just on those we are working with, but our teams, organizations, and communities.

This article was originally published on Medium on February 28, 2018.