How do you create a meaningful connection to someone?
Have you ever been in a room full of people and nevertheless felt alone? This may sound paradoxical, but I’m sure you’ve experienced it. This is something I experience at least once a week at a networking event, party, or even in a cafe. I also do a decent amount of marriage and family counseling. It’s striking to me how even in the closest relationships we can feel the mostly lonely and isolated, especially when we don’t feel understood.
Idealistically, we know that loneliness is not determined by the quantity of people around us or the amount of time we spend in the presence of another. The truth is that many of us are constantly looking for love and acceptance. We feel a perceived pressure of needing to change or conform, but instead, we only experience an emotional death that manifests from trying to ‘fit in’ rather than being accepted authentically, as we are, unconditionally. Loneliness can be measured by a perceived deficiency in the quality of connection we have with others, but this feeling emanates from a deep need that we all have for acceptance. Like many of you, I have spent so much time reaching desperately for the love and affection of others that I would have sold my soul in exchange for a release from the pain of this perceived lack of acceptance.. I think it’s my greatest desire to be assured by another that my brokenness and imperfection does not disqualify me from love and connection.
Is not the ache of loneliness a cry for meaningful connection, a type of bond with another human being that allows us to vulnerably share our heart and yet still be accepted and loved by the person on the receiving end? Many of us may not be sure how to develop these deep and empathetic connections with other human beings. Even for those of us who may feel adept in building authentic connections, finding people who want to go deep can be a challenge. Finding a person to hold, whom you have confidence doesn’t wince at your emotional investment, is difficult, exposing, and often requires that you make the first excruciatingly vulnerable move.
So how can we fight for meaningful connection in our own lives and the lives of those around us? I’ve listed some of my thoughts below (and after living for 10 years in Washington, D.C., the hard-to-connect, networking capital of the world, I’ve had a bit of time to put all of this into practice).
Know what meaningful connection is. Let’s get straight first what real connection with another human being looks like. It means being emotionally vulnerable with someone. Being open with them. Showing affection to them and receiving it in return. Knowing that you can count on someone. Showing up for them when they need to share or need help. These actions require a commitment to vulnerability, consistency, and ultimately, a willingness to love someone selflessly. We can and should meaningfully connect in marriage, friendship, our relationships with our children, and hey, even our neighbors.
Believe that everyone is worthy of meaningful connection. A lot of times we may have trouble finding people who will go deep with us. “Everyone around me is so shallow!” I’ve heard this a lot. “I just can’t find community here!” I’ve heard that one too. So what should you do? Once you believe that everyone is worthy of meaningful connection, you’ll start taking the lead to connect with them better. This means asking deeper questions to the people already around you. And it means noticing the people in your life who may be lonely or disconnected themselves. Sometimes we avoid talking to these people because they look like the “loner” or they’re not in the cool social group. But these people are worthy of connection. And oftentimes, they’re the most ready to build an authentic connection with you.
Ask good questions. If you start asking simple yet profound questions, people will know that you care about them and that you’re creating space for them to open up. This might mean asking your spouse how he or she felt about that childhood event that was impactful. It might mean asking a friend about his or her greatest fears and dreams. I like to prompt people in my community by saying, “If you really knew me, you would know _____ about me.” This is a good way to share something important about who you are, and it creates space for the other person to do the same.
Show up vulnerably yourself. I’m shuddering right now, because this one is hard and we all know it. Vulnerability means sharing things that might be uncomfortable or exposing. It means showing affection to our loved ones and friends. It means talking about those things that make us feel shame. It means showing up and confronting problems in a relationship instead of running from them. Vulnerability is tough, but it’s the currency of deep and meaningful relationships.
Be patient and consistent. Studies indicate that friendship doesn’t just happen overnight. Even in marriage, increasing connection and authenticity is a multi-year process. To develop meaningful relationships, you have to put in the time, showing up consistently to support, share, and spend quality time with another person.
Don’t let technology replace relationship. While technology has in some ways improved our ability to be in touch with others, I believe it has also hurt our ability to meaningfully connect. The points I’ve listed above are best practiced in person. Additionally, do not let political or ideological differences keep you from seeing the dignity of another person or keep you from being open. Be wise, but be open to love and to being loved. It’s better for you and for the world to see chasms like these as opportunities for curiosity, challenge, and growth.
Let me end with this. Building meaningful relationships can be challenging, and you may feel that despite trying or wanting this type of connection, the people around you still don’t understand you or don’t want to show up for you. I get that, and to you I’ll say this: You are worthy of connection. You are worthy of being known. You will find people who have the capacity and desire to build meaningful relationships, and if you haven’t found them yet, keep looking. Because they’re worth it, and so are you.
Branden also has a video series on loneliness and community. View it here.