Originally published on Forbes.
In this hyper-connected, always-on, technology-fueled world we’re living in, one would expect that we would feel a greater sense of connectedness. But we know from the research that we’re experiencing the opposite. In fact, while we’re more digitally connected than ever, society as a whole is experiencing a loneliness pandemic. And it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon.
So it goes without saying that connection — and I mean real, human connection — needs to have a comeback. The reality is that humans have evolved to be social creatures. We thrive in communities, and this is why we have a deep-rooted psychological need for social approval. The digitized, globalized, individualistic world we find ourselves in has drastically changed the social landscape. But there’s increasing recognition that we need to return to being human. And that starts with authentic human connection.
Did you know that your brain is actually hard wired for this kind of connection? And it's also proven to be good for your well-being, too. As well as affecting the vagus nerve, which has the effect of slowing your heart and regulating your heartbeat (watch Barbara Fredrickson explain this in her TEDx Talk), human connection improves your immune system, self-esteem and empathy and makes you less susceptible to anxiety and depression.
In the workplace, where outputs sometimes take priority over people’s emotional and mental well-being, it’s essential that leaders understand the foundations of human connection and how to foster more of it with their teams. Too many leaders I’ve coached are so busy focusing on their own deliverables that they’ve unknowingly overlooked how people in their team are doing.
What’s more is that when you take time to connect with people in your team and are truly present with them, it naturally boosts engagement because people feel valued and seen. And we know from decades’ worth of research that engaged employees perform better. Not only that, but this also has flow-on effects on their personal lives and overall subjective well-being.
Given the importance of connection at work, here are four must-know hacks to help you lead better.
1. Ditch the meeting room for a ‘walk and talk.’
One of my most impactful leaders early in my corporate career introduced me to the concept of a walk and talk — essentially, you just take some of your meetings outside and walk. It was a mindset shift for me when I experienced firsthand how much more enjoyable a meeting can be when you’re walking side by side through a different physical landscape, rather than sitting in a meeting room, which can sometimes be stifling. A word to the wise if you wear heels — swap them for something more walk-appropriate or else risk the calf cramp.
When you take people outside the office environment, the shift in physical space encourages them to be more personal rather than being overly task-oriented, and from my experience, even the quality of the conversation feels different. Researchfrom Stanford University suggests that walking over sitting can improve creativity and “release your filter,” helping people let their guard down, which is essential for authentic connection. I guess Aristotle got it right way back in 350 BC!
2. Instead of asking, ‘How are you?’ prime for a positive response.
How often do we respond to “How are you?” with the standard, thoughtless, “Great! Thanks. And you?”
Transactional. Impersonal. Forgettable.
If you want to create an impactful feeling of positivity, then instead try questions like, “What are you looking forward to this week?” or “What did you enjoy most about the weekend?”
Firstly, you’ll take them by surprise because it will disrupt them from automatically responding to actually thinking about an answer.
Secondly, when you skew a person’s thinking toward the positive, it draws them into the domain of positive empathy, which is felt in the supramarginal gyrus of the brain. This is the state that gets people feeling more open to sharing and being more connected, helping you learn more about your team and their drivers.
3. Have the courage to open up.
When you’re courageous enough to be open with others, like sharing your struggles or when things don’t work out, you come across as more human and relatable. This disclosure, in turn, encourages others to reciprocate by also opening up — hence why psychologists call it "disclosure reciprocity." This adult version of "I’ll tell you my secret, and you tell me yours" builds trust, empathy and intimacy and goes to the core of connection.
And get this: Neuroimaging studies have found that when people share personal stories, their brains can actually become "temporally coupled," which means you’re on the exact same "wavelength" — in other words, your brains are connected, too.
4. Be genuinely curious, and listen more than you speak.
Harvard research tells us that people love talking about themselves because, quite simply, it feels good. Self-disclosure triggers the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway and delivers a powerful neurological buzz. So, by encouraging others to talk more about themselves, you are actually giving them the opportunity to enjoy feel-good chemicals.
And if you ever find yourself struggling to be curious, look for areas of mutual interest, and explore these together. Human connection specialist Simone Heng advises in her TEDx Talk that "commonality connects." It drives empathy, inspires rapport, increases engagement and promotes collaboration. Of course, you also want to make a genuine effort to listen deeply to what they’re sharing, making them feel important and valued.
The ability to connect is becoming an increasingly vital skill as we continue to move into unchartered territories in the world of work and as the rate of change continues to accelerate. Upping your connection capability is an effective way to boost engagement and productivity in your team and to increase trust with important stakeholders — and it’s good for your well-being, too.
And remember that connection is like using a muscle: The more you do it, the easier it gets!