Updated: Dec 17, 2021
a different way to connect
humans are, despite our modern narratives around rugged individualism, fundamentally wired for connection. we thrive and grow in community, and without enough touch, dialog, and co-authored meaning-making, we languish. as a midwife (my other vocation), i often think about this need for connection as i'm privileged to watch parent-baby dyads interact in ways that suggest just how fundamental and deeply-rooted those drives can be.
in the beginning of our lives, we don't even have an inkling of our own separateness--we're seemingly just a soupy, unbounded ecosystem. as we gain awareness of "self" and of "other", of "this is where I end and parent or environment begins" though, we lose something, and that sweetly-sad loss in part shapes our needs for the rest of our lives. in the beginning, we had no concept of being anything but unity with everything. in our realization of separateness, of a you and a me, of a body distinct from its surroundings, we develop a longing need for re-connection and togetherness, primarily because its as close as we can ever come again (depending on your school of thought, i suppose) to being really truly unified or at one with all that is. in our connection with others, and in our relationship to our environment, we act out our drive to return to soupy boundlessness.
all of that philosophizing aside though, one of the messinesses of being human is that connection can actually be hard--like minefield hard. (you may have noticed.) now more than ever, we as individuals and we as societies are struggling to touch, to enter dialog, and to connect. we're the republican and the democrat yelling at each other over thanksgiving dinner. we're the pro-vaccine group and the anti-vaccine group throwing social media jabs while the vaccine-hesitant group hides and wonders why mom and dad won't stop fighting. we disagree about everything. we even disagree about truth. and worst of all, we don't know how to talk to one another in an effort to reconnect. that's a soup that no one wants to make or to eat.
the bad news: i don't have a solution for political division. sorry.
the good news: i do have some ideas for the micro-level, and i'm invested in sharing some "won't hurt/might help" strategies for simply listening to one another. these strategies come out of the world of chaplaincy, and i'm not the first person to think or say any of them.
so for today...
strategy #1: experiment with the use of honest, open questions when engaging in dialog.
here's the assignment: the next time someone is sharing something with you in conversation and you feel that they need and value your listening, resist the urge to connect via centering the conversation on yourself, and instead use honest, open questions to take the person speaking into deeper self-reflection.
here's what i mean.
a trap that we can easily fall into when trying to connect is to offer up an "oh my gosh, me too!! that happened to me too and it went/felt like this..." while the intention is purely to build connection through showing why you understand what they're feeling, the reality is that, well... you don't--you can't... and the impact of the comment is often an unhelpful de-centering of the person who is trying to share their truth.
what i'm challenging you to try on occasionally instead is an invitation into depth through honest, open questions. honest questions are questions you couldn't possibly know the answer to and that aren't advice couched in question form. "have you thought about therapy?" isn't an honest question--it's advice--it's what YOU might do in that person's place. "what solutions have worked for you in the past in similar situations" is an honest question. you the asker don't know the answer, and you aren't making a suggestion by asking.
“with such questions, we help hear each other into deeper speech...” parker j. palmer
open questions are lines of enquiry that look less like funnels into a bottle and more like river deltas opening up to the ocean. "were you scared?" is a closed question. it funnels to a simple "yes" or "no". "how did you feel when that happened?" is an open question--it leaves spaciousness for reflecting, for processing, for considering, for complexifying. it's a river opening to the whole ocean of the speaker's heart and mind.
this is not a directive to avoid advice or to avoid connecting through shared experiences. those are fundamental to communication as well, to some of us more than others. rather, this is what i like to call a "yes, and" moment. sometimes people do need solutioning, and sometimes sharing a personal anecdote is the right move in a conversation. what i'm suggesting is that you try also and on occasion to consciously deepen your connection with a person by creating a space that helps them find and express their truth, their reality, and their best answers. let your curiosity, via honest and open questions, be an invitation to exploration for the people who need your listening.
believe me, you'll likely appreciate the depth of connection that you experience as a result of holding space for another human to really truly be heard.
get in the soup. try it. let me know how it goes!
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain