How to connect with people.

by | Oct 2, 2020

How do we make human connections? This question immediately challenged me as I haven’t always been brilliant at connecting with others myself! My sense is that we all come in and out of connection and even the most skilled people get it wrong on occasion. Nonetheless, connecting with people is fundamental to leadership (and coaching) so it’s a question well worth asking.

I always know when I haven’t connected with someone, although I can choose to ignore the signals. This knowing comes from three sources. Firstly, what I observe in the other: the look of confusion, a vacant expression, boredom, mild irritation or even anger. Secondly, what they say out loud can reveal where they are coming from and how what I said has been received by them. Lastly, I notice the feelings and sensations that I observe within myself. This last source of data is probably the most reliable but the one we pay least attention to. Conversely, we all know what it feels like to connect with someone, that sensation is a felt experience in the body. It’s familiar to us, we enjoy it and we may even need it. This human resonance facilitates effective communication, helps to build lasting relationships and collaboration, and without it performance can suffer as organisations become difficult places to work in.

My own experience of when I ‘miss’ people shows me that something is getting in the way of the connection. This ‘thing’ that is getting in the way can be within me or within the other person. If this is true, then the way to connect with others is to remove the thing that are getting in the way and if it can’t be removed – to try and make it smaller.  The ‘things’ I mention are the thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations that can emerge when we interact with other people. It’s as if other people can do something to us that triggers a response inside and distracts from us giving our full attention. Or, it can make us react in a way that isn’t kind that we later regret. We can become so entangled with what is happening inside ourselves that we cannot connect with our own thoughts and feelings, let alone those of somebody else. It is the ability to work through this confusion, and ultimately discern what’s really going on, that allows us to connect.

‘I can’t do it’

The Parent, Adult Child (PAC) model from Transactional Analysis (TA) provides a useful frame to make sense of this confusion. In TA, the inner-dialogue that we we all experience is between Parent and Child. These are ego-states, not our actual parents or what we think we would say as children. The ego-state is recorded during childhood and is unconsciously replayed throughout our lives. The Parent can be nurturing or critical and the Child can be playful and creative as well as feel small or vulnerable, unable to cope in the big world. If someone says something to you that triggers a Parent recording you may stop listening, distracted by this other voice. Your Parent may be telling you what you should do in a harsh and critical way, and in response your Child might feel like a victim, thinking ‘I can’t do it’ and provoking anxiety within you. When replayed this recording will influence how you respond or connect to people. Our Adult develops later than the Parent or Child and seems to have a difficult time catching up throughout life. “The Parent and Child occupy primary circuits, which tend to come on automatically in response to stimuli” (Harris, 1973). The Adult is thoughtful, rational and in the present moment. By activating this Adult capacity we are able to cut through the confusion and see things as they are, unclouded by our archaic recordings from childhood. It allows us to sort and sift through the data to make a conscious, appropriate Adult decision.

In psychodynamic coaching the task is the same, to make sense of the past and to disentangle it from the present. I recently worked with a senior executive, called Lucy (not her real name), concerned with their feelings of anxiety when speaking in public. She tracked this emotion down and we discovered a childhood experience that included a mother that overly protected her from risky situations, and a father that was harsh and critical when she got things ‘wrong’. Knowing where these emotions came from was helpful to Lucy, as she couldn’t otherwise explain or reconcile them with being a successful leader. This allowed her to bring previously hidden aspects of her personality into conscious awareness. This new material was then available to her as self-knowledge to use when dealing with the difficult thoughts and feelings that can get in the way of us fully connecting with others.

Similarly, James Hollis, the Jungian author and therapist, describes how relationships with others can evoke our earlier experiences of childhood. 

“We can unwittingly diminish our adult capacity as we approach the new moment with avoidant, controlling or compliant behaviours from our past”.

James Hollis

Hollis uses the question: “What do you think has produced this discord within you?” to mobilise the client’s Adult capacity. It’s through this work that we improve our most important relationship – the one with ourselves, and connect with the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to look at. These shadow parts of our personality are often triggered by other people in our everyday conversations. Hollis’ question draws our attention to our shadow so we might take responsibility for it.

In my example Lucy, who was anxious about speaking in groups, was able to look at her predicament from a different perspective and see it all unfolding. When I asked her: “What do you think the little girl, overly protected by mum and harshly criticised by dad, needed?” She responded: “Love.” This was a felt experience, she new inside without hesitation that the Child inside of her needed to be loved. Lucy was able to describe how being supported to deal with novel situations as a child would also be helpful. A parent that supported her to take considered risks, rather than continually protect her from the unknown. Her conclusion was that she needed to generate inner love and support to deal with the emotions that emerge on a daily basis.

The word “emotion” dates back to 1579, when it was adapted from the French word “émouvoir”, meaning “to stir up”. We can all get stirred up by our relationships and our capacity to settle our own emotions and see things clearly is essential to connecting with the self and others. Are we able to recognise in the moment where our reaction is coming from and provide ourselves with the love and support needed in order to respond in an Adult way? As the American professor of psychology Richard Alpert reminded us: “since we spend so much time in our relationships why not turn them into a (practice) for getting free”. His invitation suggests that the optimum thing we can do for someone else is to work on ourselves. Not out of some idealistic sense of altruism but because integrating the disconnected parts of ourselves means we are more able to resolve our sense of separateness. In this sense every relationship we have is an opportunity to work on ourselves, to see where we get stuck, where we push, and where we grasp. Next time you get stirred up, your emotions are activated or triggered in some way by what someone says or does, it may be that you’ve just been given an amazing gift. A gift of knowledge that tells you where you are stuck and where your attention should be directed if you are to develop as a leader, and a human being. 

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