Between 1990 and 1995, there was an American television show called Northern Exposure. It was filled with eccentric and lovable characters in the small town of Cicely, Alaska. One of them was a woman named Maggie. In one episode, Maggie stops going to the local laundromat because it is so inconvenient to make those weekly treks and instead buys a washer and dryer she can use at home. But little by little, she realizes that the home appliances have cut her off from one of the most important informal meeting places in town. Because she feels left out, Maggie eventually returns the appliances and resumes her inconvenient weekly trips so she can meet people at the village laundromat.
It was one of my favorite episodes because it highlighted the human need for connection and relationships — and that is an area I’ve been interested in my entire career.
From my training in psychology, my research into the topic, and what I’ve learned working with leadership audiences in 32 countries, here are 5 things I know about relationships and connection.
First: I’ve learned that relationships are crucial because human beings thrive in communities.
The roots of connection go back to our prehistory as a matter of survival. We have a basic need for belonging that is powerful and primitive.
But belonging is not only a motivating component of connection, it’s the brain’s key driver. Our brains have evolved to be social and collaborative — constantly assessing how others think or feel, how they respond to us, if we feel safe with them, and if they feel safe with us.
So potent is this link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, our mirror neurons cause us to subconsciously match our body postures, movements, and even our breathing rhythm with theirs.
Studies in neuroscience also show that when we feel like we belong, and when others show us respect and appreciation, it triggers the same reward centers in the brain that are activated when we eat chocolate or have sex.
On the other hand, feeling excluded activates the same neural region that’s involved in the “suffering” component of physical pain. In other words, if you break my arm or break my heart, you hurt me and make me suffer.
Second: I’ve seen how the dark side of the need to belong shows up in our strongest unconscious bias – the ingroup / outgroup bias.
Studies from psychology find that people automatically define themselves in social groups: Any group that we feel part of is an “ingroup” and any group that excludes us, or we feel excluded from, is an “outgroup.”
Similarities make us feel comfortable – while differences make us a little uneasy. We identify more positively with “in group” members and tend to like and trust them – while judging “outgroup members” as less likeable and trustworthy. (This is why, in organizations, so often the entire executive team looks very much like the senior executive.)
The good news is, “ingroup” connections can be created by simply having something in common — a cause or a goal — which is why an organization’s Mission and Values can be so unifying. But even relatively small similarities — like rooting for the same sports team or attending the same seminar — can create a positive type of “in group” bond.
Third: I’ve experienced the power of “small talk” to build relationships.
During the break at a conference where I was speaking, the conference coordinator told me, “Carol, all of the important conversations are taking place around the wine and cheese table — because that’s the place where people can informally meet, chat, and get to know one another on a personal basis.”
Whether they take place at the village laundromat, the coffee station, or the wine and cheese bar, it’s in these informal conversations — in the U.S. call “small talk” — that we discover things we have in common, we hear the other person’s perspective, we empathize. We deepen relationships — and often, especially for my corporate clients — we increase collaboration and spark innovation.
Fourth: I know that building trusting relationships begins with each of us.
Trust is the belief or confidence that one party has in the reliability, integrity and honesty of another party. It’s the expectation that the faith we place in someone will be honored.
Trust is the foundation of deep human connection. It’s also the magnetic force that holds together any team. Without trust, a team loses its emotional glue and becomes just a group of people working together.
I’ve also learned that truly connecting with other people entails creating a sense of psychological safety — where they feel safe, supported, and trusted. And that, in turn, begins with examining how our beliefs about those other people impact their response to us.
In business, it’s called “Pygmalion Leadership,” and it’s based on research from Harvard that shows how a leader’s expectations of employees plays a key factor in how well those people perform.
Here’s how it works in any relationship: Our attitudes and expectations about other people are most often delivered unconsciously and nonverbally. When we trust, we use more “pro-social” body language such as smiles, head tilts, nods, eye contact, forward leans, open palm gestures, and a warm tone of voice. And when we show others in this way that we believe in them and trust them, they almost always live up to our expectations.
Lastly: I am convinced that we build the strongest connections when we meet in person.
When it comes to building and deepening relationships, face-to-face is undeniably the richest and most effective communication medium. In face-to-face meetings, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust, intimacy, and connection. Body language, proximity, eye contact, and touch are all present to give deeper meaning to our messages – and to allow us to instantly gauge the response of others.
There’s no doubt that we can make friends and build relationships though virtual platforms like Zoom and Teams, and I am beyond grateful that we have this technology now, but it will never replace the amazing power of in-person connection. Like Maggie in the TV show, I would gladly trade the “convenience” of working from home for the “inconvenience” of airport security lines, in-flight meals, and jet lag – because it would offer the incredible and irreplaceable experience of connecting with my audiences in person!