How do you connect with people?

July 16th, 2013 by Sit up a Tree

How do I connect with people?

I hear the phrase “connect with people” so often but I don’t really know what it means. My girlfriend talks about it all the time and I really don’t get it.  I meet people. I talk. What’s the difference? How do I “connect”? Am I just built this way?  I feel like I am missing out. Help! – Mike

That’s a really great question, Mike!

ConnectionLike your girlfriend, I believe there is a difference in connecting with another person and just meeting or talking to them. Connecting is taking the time to empathise with others. Valuing them as individuals.

I totally believe that it is a learnable skill and the fact that you want to learn it almost certainly means that you are capable of learning it.

Connecting with people is an extra step beyond just meeting or interacting with other people on a daily basis. In fact it’s entirely possible to live with another person for an entire lifetime and yet never really connect with them. I hope you’ll find some basic steps here that will help you to both decipher what connecting means and also that will help to improve your connection skills.

What connectedness is and what it isn’t

“No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The famous line (from John Donne’s Meditation XVII) says “”No Man is an Island” and most often this is mistranslated to mean that we are all interconnected, most often by society. We need one another to have our basic needs met, that is the food on sale in the store, the money to buy it with, a water supply, a roof over our heads etc. In that respect we need to work together for the sake of survival, each doing our part to make the whole work. But, in our society today, beyond those basic physical needs, most of us can maintain pretty solitary existances beyond that. We don’t need to interact much let alone connect with one another.

The fact that we are so isolated inside our own lives these days leads, in my opinion, to the great fascination that we have with popular genres such as zombies or disaster films. At our cores we know that we are dangerously isolated and ultimately that we need more connection with other people. But in every day life most of those other people are invisible to us.

If we barely see other people, let alone recongise their individuality, the uniqueness of their perception or the value of their life’s journey, the fact that we fail to connect with those people is no big surprise at all.

What “No Man is an Island” really means that we are all interconnected by something deeper than just survival.  We are so out of touch with people, and let’s face it we are surrounded by so many more of them than existed in generations past.

How meeting people has changed

Think about it. How many people would your grandmother likely have met in a lifetime? How many more do you think you come into contact with via the Internet today? How many more opinions are you exposed to in the course of a day? A year?

Your ancestors a hundred years ago won’t have met any “virtual” people beyond pen pals writing letters. The telephone was still far in the future for most people. As individuals, even the most learned among them will have been exposed to a lot fewer ideas and much less information than us. Almost all their communication was first hard with only a percentage from ideas that were written down. On the other hand, we today may talk to more people virtually than we do real flesh, face-to-face people in course of a week.

Technology’s effect on our connectedness

If we interact with people on the internet what we experience are mostly opinions. And opinions are like assholes. We all have them and they all stink.  Spending a lot of the time on the Internet can leave you feeling lost, without a voice, and surrounded by the bad smells others have left behind. It’s easy to lose your sense of identity because there are so many others out there scrabbling for the attention. It’s easy to get drowned out by the loudest voices.

So to sum up, changes in society and in technology mean that a lot has changed in a short time.  It is no wonder people are feeling disconnected and growing up never really feeling like they know how.

When we do meet people face-to-face we don’t always connect with them.

In every day life we may encounter many people, but those people interact very little. If someone hands you change in a coffee shop are you really interacting with them? Talking with them?

If you sit next to someone on a bus, do you really even acknowledge that there is even a living breathing person with thoughts and feelings of their own on the seat right next to you? Or do you try and shut that thought out? Is it safer not to think about who they are?

We have all become islands!

Step One – Noticing: the first step in getting off your island!

When did you last really talk with someone you are close to? When did you last acknowledge that they as a unique, living breathing individual? Whether it be with strangers or good friends, lovers or family, we are all suffering from a disease where we forget to really recognise there is anyone else even there.  (Now do you get where all those zombie plots are so popular?)


If you want to start connecting with people start by watching.  Find a seat in a park or on a street and just watch.

Notice body language.

  • How do people hold themselves? Are they hunched? Upright?
  • Do they move fast? Slow?
  • How does their body language change when they meet someone? Do they seem ill at ease or comfortable?
  • How well do you think the conversation is going?


Use your ears to notice how people interact. Listening to their conversations can be a great place to start building your listening and empathic skills. If you like you can shut your eyes.

  • What can you tell about them from their voices?
  • Really try and think about what their voices tell you about who they are.

Get curious!

Start to wonder about those people. At this stage it doesn’t matter whether what you’re wondering about them is in any way correct. Right now it’s an important step just to start noticing people and feeling curious about who they are.

Step 2 – Noticing ourselves

Eye contactAs you practice observing others you may find that you start to make judgements.

It’s best to avoid judging others.  No one knows how hard another person’s journey through life has been.  No one is ever perfect. Before you judge someone think of all the things that might have made him or her the way that they are or put them into the situation they are in.

Noticing our judgements.

Noticing your own judgements however can be a great way to find out about yourself and the fears that reside inside you. If you notice your mind making a judgement about another try to ask yourself why you felt the need to judge that person. What are you protecting yourself from?

Next let that judgement go. Say no thank you to it and let the thought pass from your head. Think compassionate thoughts about the other individual, eg. “I don’t know what brought that person to do what they did but they are doing the best they can with the information that they have.” Have compassion for yourself. Just in the same way, don’t beat yourself up for having made a judgement. Tell yourself exactly the same thing. Eg. “I have compassion for myself. I was doing the best I could with the information I had. I choose to be less judgemental of others.”

Notice how you are judging yourself.

What sort of messages are you giving to yourself? Are you saying to yourself things like ‘other people don’t want to know me’ or ‘nobody ever likes me’? These are harsh judgements and they do a lot of damage. Again don’t beat yourself up about that. Be kind to yourself and have compassion for you. Tell yourself: “In judging myself harshly I was doing the best I could with the information I had at the time but now I choose to be less judgemental of myself. I choose to treat myself with compassion.”

Why we judge

Being quick to judge others is often a self-protective measure which is there to help us avoid pain or rejection. The fear of rejection is a self-perpetuating cycle. We fear rejection so we avoid connecting. Not connecting leads to greater fear of rejection.

But by facing your fear of rejection you begin to break the cycle. The more you practice the more the cycle will break down. One day you will notice that it is not a part of your life anymore.

Saying thank you

It can help to say a silent thank you to the people you are observing for helping you to learn these skills. Of course they can’t hear you but that doesn’t matter. Tell them you care about them. Even if you don’t feel it, and even though they don’t hear it, saying this to yourself will begin to awaken a sense of connection with the people around you.

Try it!

How does it feel?

EmpathyStart building empathy

Empathy is the ability to recognise and share the feelings of others. It’s no surprise in this modern world that people are finding it harder and harder to use their empathy. It’s a ‘me me’ world and we’re getting less and less in the habit of thinking about anyone else. Of course this leaves us isolated and alone. So building empathy isn’t just good for other people, it’s good for you too!

Using your imagination can be great for building empathy. Just like the people watching step earlier it really doesn’t matter at this stage whether you’re building up the right picture of how some one is feeling or what it is like to be them. At this stage all we are doing is remembering that other people do have different lives, problems and experiences.

  • What would it feel like to be that old lady? That small child? That young man?
  • How would it feel to live their life? Feel their pains? Suffer their rejections, abandonments, losses?

Later on you can start to listen to people and when you listen to their feelings really try and put yourself into their position. Add it together to the other information they have told you about their lives and try to build up a picture that lets you feel a little bit of how hard it has been for them. Again tell them silently that you care.

Step 3 – Interacting

With what you’ve learned so far it is time to bring those skills into real interactions.

Start to interact with people. People you know AND people you don’t know.

If you feel nervous remember to have compassion for yourself and give yourself some positive messages. Recognise the fear as only trying to help you. Say to it “thank you for trying to protect me but I want to learn this” and let it go.

Keep on noticing.

What you’ve learned by observing others will be useful here too. Notice how the speaker’s voice changes as they speak to you. Notice their body language. Notice their eyes. Do they look directly at you? Do they look at you for emphasis when they speak?

Work on your listening skills

As you work on having conversations in a new more conscious way you really don’t need to say a lot. In fact in many ways it’s better if you say little, concentrating instead on what the other person is saying.

Show them you are interested in listening to them by asking open questions (questions that can’t be answered with yes or no) and by nodding your head as they speak. A simple “I hear you” can go a long way to make someone feel heard.

Many listeners do so badly because they are too worried about what they are going to say next. Don’t think about your input to the conversation. Your focus lies entirely in listening to the speaker.

If you do find yourself planning what to say next, simply let that thought go and return to listening. If you have something to say after they have finished speaking they will appreciate the thoughtfulness of your reply as will as the brief pause while you think of it.  A simple smile can let someone feel heard. It is not necessary to evaluate or judge what the speaker has said.

Read this series of posts that can help improve your listening skills.

Remember to:

  • Observe. Use your eyes, your ears.
  • Notice any judgements you might make. Let them go.
  • Think compassionate thoughts about the speaker.
  • Think compassionate thoughts to yourself.
  • Notice your progress!
  • Reward yourself!!

Notice whether your communication is different using the skills you have learned so far in your every day life.

Identify feelings rather than opinions.

ListeningWe can share opinions with others but not feel connected. We can feel very connected to people who disagree with us. What’s going on and what’s the difference? It is great to have someone share your views,  but connecting has more to do with relating to how another person felt and how whatever you’re discussing affects their lives. We are all different. If we try to look through that person’s eyes, rather than just discussing the issues, we start to take that extra step of making connection.

When we relate to the feelings and perspectives of others it really doesn’t matter about our thoughts on an issue, because we can see through their eyes how it makes them feel. When we see through their eyes we don’t need to prove our point, score points or win a debate.

Show them you care

There is nothing that makes a connection better than feeling like we are listened to, recognised for our uniqueness, and valued as individuals.  Mostly when people aren’t connecting with other people it is because they fear them or because they are thinking of themselves.

By putting the other person first you shift the balance and the focus away from yourself. If you really listen to people and focus on them you can feel less self conscious and more comfortable.

Use gentle eye contact. There’s no need to keep it up the whole time, but a gentle glance in their direction can give feedback that you are listening as well as creating a bond of emphasis between you.

Again you can thank them silently for participating in the conversation. You may even want to voice this. Likewise silently feeling a sense of love toward the speaker will help you to feel more connected with them.

Keep practicing your connection skills

Practice will improve your communication every time. As you progress you will find yourself contributing naturally to conversations so that they are more two-way, but remember to keep the focus on the listener when they are speaking.

Give of your time

Consider how you can use the skills you have learned.

Volunteering to visit sick or elderly people in hospital is a good route. You don’t need to be an especially good listener for this, you just need to be willing to take the time.  Very often people will open up more the less that you say.

Step 4 – Turning interaction into connection

By now your interactions are pretty close to the sense of connection you seek. The people you speak to feel heard and valued. You are able to give non-judgemental feedback and you are compassionate for yourself and others.  The key element of connection that you may still feel is missing is most likely to be the element of sharing.

If you have learned to be a good listener then you’ve hopefully already had some opportunities to share your experiences and insights, as they have flowed naturally from working on your listening  and empathy. Now for the people you are communicating with to feel truly connected, they need to get a sense of who you are.

For that sense of connection to exist you have to begin to share. Your thoughts, your feelings, your experiences and your insights. It’s a vital part of feedback.

It’s great to be heard. It’s better to be understood.

We can more fully feel understood when the communication becomes truly two-way.

Take sharing to the next level

The goal is here to give something back to the listener. Ask yourself how your experiences might help them. What insights do you have?

  • As always, notice how they react.
  • Notice how you feel.
  • Be kind to each other.

Sharing fears

Sharing is being honest. Sometimes even very good listeners feel uncomfortable about sharing of themselves.  Therapists and counsellors listen with great skill but still find it hard to be outside of the therapeutic situation because then they have to start to show who they are. This can be scary for anyone.

Hopefully the time spent building up your communication, listening and empathy skills will have given you some confidence. But if you still find that you feel afraid of sharing your own thoughts, feeling and experiences it’s important to consider why.

  • Go back to those judgements we talked about earlier and consider whether you are judging yourself harshly.
  • Consider whether you are judging your listener’s empathic skills and openness to what you are saying.
  • Do you think that they will reject you or object to what you might say?

If so recognise the fears and the judgements, have compassion for yourself for those feelings of self-protectiveness then once again thank them and send them on their way.

Sharing and honesty can take time.

Some people fear the choice of how much to reveal.  This is a challenge. If I am unsure what to say I usually ask myself these three questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it kind?

It is better to practice openness in dribs and drabs. Try to be more honest in situations where you might evade a question or tell a white lie.

Start with small things and work your way up to the bigger questions of thoughts, feelings, values and beliefs.

As relationships become deeper and more open, honesty becomes easier. Your listener will treat you with the same respect and compassion that you show them. This makes sharing safer and easier each time.

Honing your Empathy skills

As you practice more and more your empathic skills will improve and deepen. We learn to tell the difference between the imagined empathy that we practiced earlier and the deeper sense of what an individual is telling us.

We are more able to share experiences that might relate to the other person’s situation and explain how we think the two experiences might be similar.

Give others opportunities to explore how they feel in your conversations. Try to use questions to illicit feelings rather than projecting your own hallucination of how they might feel. Saying “if that happened to me I would feel betrayed” is better than saying “you must feel betrayed” or “isn’t that a betrayal”.

As always respect that the individual is entirely different and separate to you and has had experiences that are exclusive to their own lives, no matter how similar they may seem.

Have compassion for yourself

Remember that it is ok to be imperfect. You do not have to get anything right. You are doing your best to be a conscious communicator and empathic listener.

Show compassion for you. Talk gently to yourself as you would a child or a loved one. You know how hard it has been to get to where you are. Be kind to yourself. When we start to have compassion for ourselves we build compassion for others.

It may be a slow process but it’s worth keeping it in mind throughout your lifelong journey into connectedness: each day you are replacing fear with experience a little at a time.

As we reduce our fear through practice we also reduce our tendency to judge. As we judge others and ourselves less harshly we feel less need to protect ourselves from them. The more we can trust and the more we can be open.

And the cycle – and the connection – continues.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 16th, 2013 at 11:17 am and is filed under Communication, Personal Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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