Some days it feels like there is more that divides us than unites us. Growing distrust in government, domestic racial tension and immigration, urbanism to rural and suburban living, partisan gridlock, inter and intra-government coordination, generational shifts in the workplace, and technology changing the way we live, work and play. It can feel overwhelming. Where do we start?
The good news is that a growing body of science is rewriting the narrative of natural competition to collaboration. Rather than Darwin’s survival of the fittest, researchers find that people are prone more so for connection. With more than 99 percent of human DNA being shared, our collective well-being increases individual thriving, too – especially in our increasingly interconnected world. We connect through shared experience, communication, altruism and our values of public service.
So, what gets in our way of our innate desire to connect?
Neuroscience illuminates some answers. While we are interdependent, we can have a greater affinity with those we perceive to be similar to ourselves: our in-group (“us”). Those we perceive as different are out-groups (“them”). In-groups fulfill basic human needs for survival, belonging and meaning. We intuitively turn to them for help, for security and for love. There is no limit to how we define our in-groups: gender, race, geography, political affinities, religion, hobbies, vocation and age are but a few. When we confront an out-group, structures in the brain are triggered. Our brains tell us we are under threat – whether we are or not. This threat response – referred to as “fight or flight” – activates our amygdala, the part of our brain that reacts to old memories, and floods us with a stress hormone called cortisol. We hear a conflicting political view: our amygdala fires up. We see someone who looks different: same thing. Funding from the national body gets pulls: there it goes. We tense up. We hear less. We shift into tunnel vision. We become fearful, anxious and/or agitated. In short: we are significantly limited from operating at our best.
Remember that good news: we are wired to connect. As people, we comprise the same in-group. Below are six accessible, evidence-based reset strategies that help you connect across divides.
1. Take 5 minutes to self-assess.
Honestly assess who you are. Start by listing five to ten identities you use to describe yourself. What favorable and unfavorable perceptions are ascribed to each? Let’s take public servant as an example. Favorable perceptions include altruistic, integrity, problem-solvers and visionary. Unfavorable perceptions may include out of touch and self-interested. Then, go a bit further. What media do you follow? What life experiences define who you are? Who is in your circle? Your answers shape how you make sense – and respond – to others and the world around you. When complete, review your answers. There is no right and wrong here. What do you notice? How does this inform how you connect with others?
2. Practice self-management.
What is your natural response when presented with difference? Do you fight, flee or freeze. Take note of your default mode. Develop an “in the moment” strategy to self-manage versus getting hijacked by your amygdala. If you want to fight, set a timer for one minute. Count your breaths on the exhale. Try to focus only on the inhale and exhale of your breath. This breathing exercise helps equalize the nervous system and calm the mind. If you want to flee, assume a confident, open posture with shoulders back, chest open and soften your face. This “power pose” releases testosterone in the body, which increases confidence, authenticity and perseverance.
3. Ask open-ended questions — and just listen.
Get curious. Who is the person behind the identity? What experiences shaped their life? What is important to them? Ask open-ended questions that preferably start with “what” and “how”. (Asking “why” can put people on the defense.) Just listen. Your mission is to understand. Actively listening builds empathy, the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences of another. When we are “in it” with the other person, “mirror neurons” are activated in our brains. It is like we are having the same experience. Empathy reduces prejudice and stress from overwhelm. Additionally, both empathy and active listening flood our brains with oxytocin, cortisol’s counter hormone that makes us feel good and builds trust.
4. Shake hands before a meeting.
Human contact is a sure way to release oxytocin. Do this gesture before a meeting and genuinely check in with the other person. “How are you?” “What are your hopes for this meeting?” “What are you looking forward to today?” The oxytocin boost helps prime the conversation for collaboration. It also communicates non-verbal cues of presence and appreciation. I challenge you to high five, too. Professional NBA teams that high five, fist bump and pat each other on the back during practice experience improved performance come game time.
5. Make eye contact.
Eyes are windows into the person. When talking with others, looking into people’s eyes offers non-verbal recognition and respect. The gesture validates the speaker, conveys esteem and activates the reward circuit regions in the brain. It is also associated with increased credibility.
6. Positively model the way.
As a leader, your attitude is contagious! Managers who emote greater positivity are more accurate and careful in decision-making. They are also more effective interpersonally and have happier, more productive workplaces in which coordination is more easeful and felt effort is reduced. Having a rough day yourself? Take two minutes to power pose. You’ll feel the difference.
Start small. Apply these accessible, achievable connection points into your daily communications. Expand on what works. Iterate what doesn’t. Our communities will be better for it.
Frieda K. Edgette is a certified executive coach and organizational strategist with a political background. Her firm Novos Consulting works with civic-minded leaders, teams, organizations and communities through strategic changes benefiting the greater good. Frieda has worked on more than 150 civic change initiatives in more than five continents and advised more than a 1,000 civic leaders from local administrators to ministers of Parliament. She instructs courses on stereotypes and political strategy at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and resilient leadership at Stanford Continuing Studies. Follow her on Twitter @FKEdgette.