Human connection: what is it and how to make more of it
Deconstructing the most satisfying relationship moments so that you can reverse-engineer them
Here it is!
The post I promised you on Friday. The framework for human connection, based on nine factors and modest three years of experience of community and connection building.
But also, my whole thirty three years of living and relating on this planet.
I’ll let you dive right in. I really hope for comments and suggestions. ;-)
Just like most abstract concepts, “connection” escapes definitions. And yet, there’s value in trying to define it.
If we can grasp what human connection means and map out ways to create it, we’re more likely to experience it. And if you ask me, that’s one of the things we currently need the most on this planet.
According to Anna Mercury who writes about the intersection of culture and climate change:
“Right now, more than anything, we need human ingenuity. (…) We all need to be experimenting with different ways of living, with different ways of organizing society and with radically different ways of behaving on this planet.”
One avenue to find those “radically different ways” is through connection.
When human connection happens at scale, it can inform new ways of being, solving problems, and — as a result — a new culture. It opens untapped possibilities because it changes how we make meaning. It allows us to feel safer in the world — and therefore changes motivations from which we make choices.
At the same time, it also benefits individual health and wellbeing. In short, human connection is one of the most impactful things you can pursue!
No let’s explore how to make more of it.
What is Human Connection?
There are two ways to define connection: as an ongoing relationship, and as an in-the-moment experience.
In the first instance, scientists talk about the human need to be embedded in a network of social connections. Specifically, it’s the way mammalian species evolved to be interdependent with others of their kind. One consequence is that our individual wellbeing is closely connected to the quality of our relationships.
But, there’s also another way to look at connection: as an in-the-moment experience that can happen with anyone. In this case, a pre-existing relationship isn’t neccesary.
In the second sense, connection can be thought of as a “metaemotion.” The concept of metaemotion was first introduced by John Gottman in the context of parents interpreting their own and their children’s feelings. Since then, the idea has been explored by psychologists and philosophers and taken in many directions. One way to think about metaemotion is that it consists of the primary, as well as secondary emotions — i.e. emotions you feel in response to the primary ones. An example could be feeling proud that you managed to stay calm through a difficult conversation.
The in-the-moment experience of connection fits well with this definition. It usually starts with feeling something in relation to another person first. Then, it builds upon how that feeling makes you feel — as well as the meaning you draw from the whole experience.
To understand this better, I want you to meet Jonathan — a man who recovered from throat cancer thanks to a stranger he met on the street.
After he received the scary diagnosis, Jonathan realized that his relationships — especially with his daughter — lacked the depth and closeness he wanted. He struggled to ask his family for support through his illness. Miraculously, he found it in the connection with Doug — a man fundraising for charity on the sidewalk.
They connected a few times, without ever establishing a relationship. Doug shared chocolates, as well as his life story, with Jonathan. The unexpected closeness they felt in those moments was one thing. Another was what Jonathan made of it — and the metaemotion of connection that followed.
Talking to Doug was different from the interactions Jonathan was used to. He realized that what created connection was being open and vulnerable with each other. Meeting Doug infused his life with a new kind of meaning, hope, and confidence that he would recover — because now he had something to live for.
And, recover he did. Can we say that human connection saved him?
Connection Thrives on This
Of course, Jonathan couldn’t have engineered that experience. When he met Doug, he was in a bottomless pit of fright and despair, facing the reality of a potentially fatal disease. He surely wasn’t strategizing to make connection happen.
Nobody can predict connection. It’s impossible to consider all the variables that allow us to experience it. A lot of the time, it just happens — a tender moment over a dinner table, an unexpectedly honest “I’m sorry” offered over the phone, a joke between you and your coworker that makes you feel like you both just get it. In those moments, you may not quite know what happened. What you know is the unexpectedly warm feeling that floods your heart, and that your day becomes brighter from that moment on.
This isn’t to say that we can’t increase the chances of connection. Based on my experience of running connection workshops and community building, I’ve isolated nine factors that can maximize your odds.
You can’t always have all of them. But even if you put one or two in place, this can impact how connected you feel to others. Then, the ripple spreads— other people, knowingly or not, start immitating you in their efforts to experience connection.
After all, isn’t that what we all really want deep down?
Note: This 9-factor framework below is very much a work-in-progress. I’d love to hear what you think, what you might add or take out of this list, and why. Please share your suggestions in the comments!
9 Factors That Improve the Odds of Connection
1: Physical and psychological safety
Let’s start with the basic one. Without feeling a sense of safety, it’s very hard — if not impossible — to experience connection. That’s because connection often requires a degree of vulnerability, i.e. putting your guard down and letting the other person in.
You won’t do this when you feel fundamentally unsafe — physically or psychologically. Opening yourself to connection may feel like a risk. To take that risk, you need to know there’s a “safety net” you can fall back on if something goes wrong.
Physical safety is pretty straightforward. It means trusting that your basic physiological needs will be met, and that there are no immediate dangers to your survival. The psychological safety, however, can be more nuanced.
It can involve being in a team or group where it’s okay to speak your opinions and make mistakes, without negative consequences. That’s the “business” context in which I hear about psychological safety. It has to do with the quality of relationships which makes people feel safe to be themselves and, as a result, work together better.
However, it can also mean being more open to someone you’ve just met because you know you have a tribe to come back to. As mentioned before, connection often feels like a risk. Having a group that you rely on for psychological safety can allow you to take more of those risks. For example, it may be easier to go on dates when you have a strong reliable friendship group.
There’s a lot more nuance to psychological safety that I can’t do justice to within this piece. One example is where physical and psychological safety overlap for people who have experiences of trauma. Traumatic events can make it seem like you’re physically unsafe as a result of lack of psychological safety — e.g. your body may respond to someone’s innocent comment with a freeze response or another sign of major distress.
One way to discover how you can help yourself feel safe is nervous system regulation.
2: Nervous system regulation
Self-regulation (i.e. self-induced regulation of your nervous system) is a becoming a big topic these days. The more we become aware of our collective and individual trauma, the more we see how necessary this is to healthy functioning.
In my experience, being able to regulate your nervous system is also one of the most important skills for pursuing meaningful connections.
Why? Because it’s hard — if not impossible — to enter connection for a place of distress. And because the person you want to connect with may trigger you. And because some of the most meaningful moments with others happen when we manage to overcome conflict.
The reasons are endless.
Nervous system regulation is a route to safety. It’s an ability to bring your body back to feeling calm, so that you perceive things clearly. There are also moments when you’re able to use other people’s presence to soothe your nervous system. This is referred co-regulation, where another — preferably calmer — body next to you helps you relax. This happend both on a behavioural and biological (hormonal) level.
Belonging is an ambigous factor for creating connection. That’s because it usually requires long-lasting relationships, not just in-the-moment-encounter. And like I said before, a relationship that stretches over time isn’t necessary to experience connection.
Belonging ≠ connection. However, more belonging often increases the quality and depth of connection.
Connection feels different when it’s experienced in a context of belonging and care — and, when it isn’t. A scenario I see often is moments of connection that happen in a group workshop where people don’t know each other. During an exercise or game, they may have a spark of that lovely feeling that says “This person is just like me, and I’m like them! It’s all sooooo human and normal what we’re experiencing! I feel like I’ve known them for ages.”
While this kind of connection has its place, time, and value, it’s not the same as what happens in the context of belonging. Whatever happens in a workshop-based connection, most people don’t follow up on it. Peter Limberg calls it “intimacy without friendships” and points to the lack of responsibility that comes with this kind of connection.
Some people just call it “emotional masturbation.” It brings satisfaction in the moment, but doesn’t translate into creating or strenthening relationships.
That’s what’s different about experiencing connection with a friend, family member, partner, a fellow community activist — or anyone who’s in your life for longer. Chances are, you attach a part of your identity to them — so they anchor feelings of belonging in your life. When that’s the case, experiencing mutual connection builds your social capital. It comes with not just in-the-moment benefits — but also, improves your life long-term.
When two or more people get together to interact, it always happens in a contex. Context is everywhere, whether we acknowledge it or not. Meeting a friend in a cafe, at their house, or in a co-working space will feel a bit different each time. That’s because an aspect of your context changes.
Context isn’t just about the place, though. There are countless other elements that go into it — for example, factors like these:
Is your meeting bound by a time limit?
Are you meeting for a particular reasons or just to generally “catch up”?
Are there other people around? Who are they? Do you know them?
What mood are you both in and what are your energy levels?
When was the last time you saw each other and what happened then?
What roles and identities create the power dynamics between you?
Context often impacts whether you’re able to achieve what you’re looking for in a particular interaction. Of course, we don’t always know what we’re looking for. But more often than not, deep beneath other motivations is the longing for connection.
What contexts support connection? One way to think about it is as a spectrum of structure. By structure I mean having a plan, time, agenda, and explicitly stated goals for your interaction. The amount of structure that supports connection is often an individual preference — and can also depend on what you want to experience.
For example, unstructured contexts can be good for getting to know new people. There’s little to no restriction on how much time you need to spend, fewer expectations, and more freedom in what you talk about. All these things can support connection… assuming that you’re a confident person.
If you’re a shy introvert who struggles to have their voice heard, a more structured context —such as a connection workshop — can support you more. This way, you don’t have to fight for time and space to speak. Many decisions about how you’ll spend your time are taken outr of the equation. You feel safer — and that’s how a structured context may support connection.
There aren’t any clear-cut rules about context — at least not that I’m aware of. A good practice is to just be aware of it and how it impacts your connection. Remember that it’s possible to change or reset context — it isn’t always easy but often, it’s worth it.
5: Awareness of power dynamics
One particular piece of context that we bring into virtually any interaction is our systemic and group identities. These are things such as race, gender, age, position in the company, lengh of time you’ve been a member of a group — and other factors that impact the distribution of power.
An unequal power distribution is present in more interactions than we care to admit. That’s often referred to as “privilege” or “social advantage.”
I still have a long way to go in learning about this. Raised in Poland, which is a) a quite sneakily patriarchal society and b) an ethnic monolith, I haven’t been as exposed to conversations about privilege and power as I’d have liked. This is slowly changing now that I live in the UK and spend time around more diverse groups of people.
But I digress. What’s important to say is that awareness of power generally helps with building genuine connection — instead of a facade one. By a “facade one”, I mean where the power-over person often stays blind to their advantages and lives in an illusion of equality. Meanhile, the power-under person bends over backwards to maintain that illusion to keep the benefits of the relationship. Often, it happens at a cost of their integrity or truthfulness.
When awareness of power and ability to name it are present, things can look different. What needs to be acknowledged is that when power isn’t equal, one person often puts significantly more on the line to create connection.
For example, a relationship of an employee and their boss can be based more on connection than on fear. When it’s openly acknowledged that the boss has the power to fire or otherwise punish the employee, agreements can be put in place to support the latter to speak more openly, maybe even including criticizing the boss.
Otherwise, their main incentive in this relationship may be simply to please the boss and keep the job.
The boss and the employee may never become close friends. But at least, they can increase the chance to experience some connection and make the relationship more genuine.
What I mean by mindfulness here is two things:
Staying present, and
Being plugged in to the changes in the relational space.
These are two attentional skills that support connection.
Staying present is pretty straightworward. It means that what is happening here, right in front of your eyes, is the main thing occupying your mind. If the proportions flip and you’re mostly focused on a story or worry running through your mind, only remotely aware of what the person in front of you is saying — you’re probably not present.
By being plugged in, I mean allowing the interaction with the other person to impact you. It’s hard to experience connection when all you do is say your part, listen to the other person’s part, but don’t establish links between the two. In that scenation, a dialogue can’t happen. Rather, it’s what Buddhist teacher Susan Piver calls “sequential monologues.”
Instead, she says, you need to “let what’s happening touch you”:
“Mindful does not mean peaceful. It does not mean in control. It can certainly include those things. But what mindfulness really means is letting down your guard, opening to whatever situation you’re in and whoever you happen to be speaking to. (…) If you’re not letting what’s happening touch you, odds are you’re trapped in your hopes for how things should go or your fears for how things may go. And that is not mindful.” — Susan Piver
Mindfulness in relationships is largely about staying susceptible to what’s changing, evolving, and emerging through an interaction. It involves the awareness that neither you nor anyone else is a “finished product.”
We’re all constantly reinventing ourselves —and a big part of that happens while communicating with other people.
7: Skilfull communication
Communication is how we can approach connection from a more “technical” point of view. This is one of my favourite connection-related topics. I love observing the ways in which what we say, how we say it, in what order, when, etc. can impact feelings of connection.
And if you’re wondering — yes, it can get geeky! But, it’s also empowering. Looking at connection through the lens of how we communicate frames it very much as a skill. Just like with any skill, communication is something we can practice and improve.
Skillful communication invites connection without compromising on your integrity and boundaries. It can involve learning how to:
Deliver feedback in a way that’s well-received, productive, and strenghtens relationships rather than disrupts them
Formulate clear requests, as well as gracefully say both “yes” and “no” to other people’s requests
Express genuine and specific appreciation
Practice active, reflective listening to let others know you’ve heard and understood them
Negotiate ways of meeting your own and other people’s needs without dismissing either as less important.
These are some examples of what skillful communication enables us to achieve on the verbal level. There are also other layers to communication — like developing sensitivity to cultural differences or being able to track your own experience while staying present with others. The more layers you master, the more your communication supports connection.
Understanding different layers of communication (verbal, nonverbal, cultural, etc.) means a more nuanced experience of any given interaction. This often means you can hold contradictory truths at the same time — e.g. loving someone and at the same time feeling annoyed at them. Over time, this removes conditions you put on connection, and allows you to experience it with a wider range of people, in a wider range of circumstances.
8: Conflict resolution system
This is the point on this list that I know the least about — and yet, it feels important to include it. Ever since I learned about the work of Dominic Barter and Restorative Circles, I believe much of conflict we experience can be resolved within and by the system it emerged in — be it a family, community, friend group, workplace, or entire organisation.
For that to be possible, we need conflict resolution systems— agreed upon ways of conduct for when things go south.
According to Mediators Beyond Borders, a conflict resolution system is “any process that can either prevent conflict or address conflict effectively, whether such conflict occurs between people or amongst groups within or between organizations. While people often behave badly during conflict, the possibility of profound personal and organizational learning and growth is always present in every conflict we encounter.” This definition frames conflict not just as a challenge — but also, a generative experience.
How is that relevant to connection? A lot of the time, we don’t connect as deeply as we could because we avoid conflict. We don’t disclose things we think we might be punished for. Or, we withhold speaking up when something doesn’t work for us, building up resentment as a consequence.
We play all sorts of games to avoid confrontation. As a result, we miss out on connection, too.
But there’s another way to look at conflict. When managed well, it can become a place of learning and relational deepening. It frees us up to say what we think, as well as listen to another in a way that’s constructive, rather than destructive.
“Telling the truth just feels good — and that feeling of relief is the transformation of stagnant into useful and usable energy. Learning to do this in real-time is one of the most powerful skills you can master. Just as alchemists transform metal into gold, we can learn to transform conflict into love.”
Can there be a more inspiring way to think about generating connection?
9: The attitude of positive regard
I left this one for the end of this list, to put a cherry on top. Extending positive regard to others is my personal favourite when it comes to connection. This is for two reasons.
First, it’s because it expresses one of my most basic beliefs about people — that we are all kind whenever our circumstances support us to be kind. There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about any person on this planet. The only times anyone does harm is when it stems from their own discomfort or trauma they haven’t been able to tend to yet.
The second reason for prioritizing positive regard for others is that it’s always within your internal locus of control. I rarely use the word “always” — but here, I mean it. You can’t control what other people say or do. But you can choose to adopt the attitude of unconditional positive regard towards them It’s what Carl Rodgers understood as “showing complete support and acceptance of a person no matter what that person says or does.”
This often means replacing judgment with curiosity. Let’s look at a simple example. You run a recurring meeting and one person is notoriously late. If you come from a place of judgment, you may develop a negative story about them — that they don’t care, they’re lazy, disorganized, disrespectful, etc.
But if you put on the lens of positive regard, you may see them differently. You’ll get curious. Your basic assumption becomes that this person is doing their best, yet there is something preventing them from showing up on time. Maybe they have a young child they need to leave with a nanny, and the nanny is often late. Or, they drive an old car that is causing trouble. You may not know what it is — but you can at least be curious, and assume the best, rather than the worst about them.
Can you see how positive regard invites more connection than judgment ever could? By commiting to the former whenever possible, you give people much more benefit of the doubt — and therefore, opening space for connection.
What can YOU do to increase the chances of connection?
Let’s take a deep breath now.
We’ve just been through a lot of different threads. Let them all settle in your mind by skimming through the summary of main factors that contribute to connection.
Physical and psychological safety are essential in opening up to the possibility of connection.
The ability to regulate your own nervous system enables you to create the feeling of safety.
A sense of belonging contributes to how you experience connection — and what it means to you in the long-run.
Being aware of context allows you to think of environmental and systemic factors that either support or impede connection.
The wareness of power dynamics helps you unpick one particular element of context that often goes unacknowledged — and therefore, blocks connection.
Mindfulness allows you stay in touch with the moment-to-moment experience, and let yourself to be touched by it.
Communication skills enable you to express and receive information about that moment-to-moment experience — without producing blame, shame, or resentment.
Conflict systems give you a safety net that empowers you to disagree, set boundaries, and express other challenging aspects of relationships. Paradoxically, this improves your ability to connect.
The attitude of positive regard gives you a helpful lens to hold all of the above in a wider frame of compassion, curiosity, and a sense of common humanity.
Now, what you’ll do with all these factors is up to you. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to think about or implement all of them at once. And, it may not even be necessary.
What’s probably more helpful is asking yourself which of these factors appeal to you at this time in your life. What are you curious and able to experiment with? Pick one, maybe two from the list. Then, start paying more attention to how they play out in your interactions — and learn from that.
Remember: it’s not just you who benefits from experiences of connection. By encouraging them, you’re adding to the necessary cultural shift — which is essential for human survival on this planet.
Thanks for reading! If you want to hear more from Connection Hub… you know what to do. ;-)