On the Value and Meaning of Connection


“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.”

[Ludwig Wittgenstein]

Unless that room is in Italy in that case it opens inwards by default in most building and people have figured out how to get out centuries ago. This is an example of how when something applies to our experience and view of the world it makes sense to nod to it, even metaphorically. We go along because it rings true, yet is not true everywhere and for everyone.

    Even when many experience a certain kind of reality, it doesn't mean all do, or agree with it. As is often the case, exceptions teach us more about why things are the way they are than rules do. In some cases, agreement can be the highest form of misunderstanding. We agree without challenging the notion.

    Disagreement can be more helpful, because it contains the seed for true connection to the issues. To disagree effectively we need to gain clarity around what and how something works — or doesn't. We disagree to add information.

    Yet it's become increasingly harder to navigate conflict, perceived and real. People often take positions because “so-and-so said it,” “I say so,” or “we've always gone along,” without adjusting for cultural, environmental, and situational circumstances.

    The point is things are true based on our experience and within a certain context. We can quote anything to make a statement based on what we want to say. But a quote doesn't apply in a vacuum and is subject to interpretation. In recent years, we've found this to be true of science and data as well.

    Some ideas are more enduring, but that's because as humans we've been grappling with the underlying issues and questions longer. We do it in our own ways, based on our purpose, through time. Does a popular person saying something make it more true than what we found in our experience?

    Wait, don't answer that question. Because it's rhetorical, asked for the purpose of making a point. It's the kind of question we read in social networks every day, all day long. Asked for the purpose of framing a conversation that will lead to something we know (or we think we figured out), and to answering it for ourselves. It's a familiar pattern in human relationships, amplified and made stronger online.

    Patterns reveal themselves as more information is available on both sides of the argument, or question. We reveal ourselves better as we interact with others over time. Everything is connected to everything else, and communication protocols — whether they be bits and atoms or sounds, gestures, and words — help us make sense of things in relation to thought and experience.

    At a time where we worship rationality and proof, our senses continue to be better BS detectors than our reason more often than we care to admit. Connections happen in real life, there's less hiding there. The act of shaking someone's hand, looking them in the eye, taking in the non verbals within the context where you are, including the common contact, bind you in ways what we call the social graph can only demonstrate after we create a connection.

    Social networks did not solve the problem of connection for two main reasons — 1./ they're designed to profit the technology company that runs them by default, which means the data collection and algorithm functionality are in function of that business goal; 2./ wherever we go, there we are, which means our intent carries through regardless of the tools we use. 

    Examples of the first abound, from the use of content to advertise, hence the pay to play, to the use of data to classify and cherry-pick what to show in streams. Whatever our nature, tools give us the ability to amplify and extend it. So if we want something objective by any measure, rather than compromise, we need to build systems that bring more voices and points of view to the table — dispassionately.

    In Principles, Ray Dalio, founder of successful investment firm Bridgewater Associates, talks about the value of “radical truth” and “radical transparency.” To help do that, he says that life, management, economics, and investing can all be systemized into rules and understood like machines. Which then creates the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams.

    To take a step in that direction, we need to make it a habit to measure actions we took based not just on final outcomes, but also how they helped/didn't help us learn something valuable, think through an issue, or discover new information about the world, and us in it.

    Becoming smarter, or learning to think better, or understanding issues… however we label the task, is our job. We learn much more from trying to figure things our for ourselves than we do by trying to force feed our ideas onto others. We also achieve better results for all involved.

    Chris Voss has learned that the hard way. A former FBI Hostage Negotiator he has been involved in high stakes negotiations — some of them with unintended consequences. In Never Split the Difference, he says “Conflict brings out truth, creativity, and resolution.”

    He also reminds us that when we feel heard, we hear ourselves better. Since we can only listen once, for that is typically what happens as the conversation moves on, we can improve our odds of letting the other party know we've heard them by repeating what they told us. In communication we call this mirroring.

    He says:

Mirrors work magic. Repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar. Mirroring is the art of insinuating similarity, which facilitates bonding. Use mirrors to encourage the other side to empathize and bond with you, keep people talking, buy your side time to regroup, and encourage your counterparts to reveal their strategy.


By repeating back what people say, you trigger this mirroring instinct and your counterpart will inevitably elaborate on what was just said and sustain the process of connecting.

    Mirroring helps us signal we're listening actively and are engaged with what the other person is saying. To experience the positive effects of hearing our own thoughts, we talk to ourselves out loud. Anyone who does that understand how valuable it is to get to the meaning of what we're thinking.

    Another one of Voss' techniques is the open-ended question. An example is, instead of asking, “What would you like to do next?” we say something to the effect of, “it sounds like you have next steps in mind…” In other words, we communicate “I'm listening, tell me more.”

    Emotional intelligence is a powerful tool in our lives. it's counter intuitive, but we obtain much more when we begin by seeking to understand first. Voss says we should think of negotiation as the art of discovery, as it helps us learn what we're thinking on top of what the other party is thinking (especially since we won't find out, unless we listen.)

    Loneliness and its effects are even more visible online, where speed of communication and lack of non verbals make the true connection we crave even more challenging. Who has not said something in anger, frustration, or sadness to then regret it later for it did not fill that void. Which leads to unpleasant chain reactions. 

    We can listen online, too. American stand-up comedian, actress, producer, and writer Sarah Silverman demonstrated the power of an open heart, and mind. We have a choice, and we can use the tools to build meaning and connection, rather than keep us isolated in our bubble and potential discontent.

    Learning is a process, and we do far better when we engage with it actively and consistently, putting one action, word, and thought in front of the other to build bridges. This is why most of our activities require a combination of bonding and bridging.


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