- Shifting from "what can I get" to "how can I contribute" can help us develop meaningful relationships—and rewire our brain.
- Surfacing (unexpected) mutual interests can help us bond.
- Asking questions differently helps show genuine interest in the other person and connect on a more meaningful level.
- By implementing specific rituals or practices into our life, we can develop more meaningful connection(s).
With the world opening up again, many of us are seeking authentic connections, the kind of connections that bring meaning, joy, and serendipity to our life. In my research on what allows people and organizations to be more purpose-driven and successful, three strategies tend to come up again and again that can help us develop lasting relationships:
1) Shifting from “What can I get” to “How can I contribute?”
Most people will go to “networking events” and think about what’s in it for them. They approach these events transactionally, looking for clients, etc. But what is much more meaningful is to authentically come from the perspective of, “How can I contribute?” Everyone who is somewhat interesting will have a lot of people who come to pitch them, but the people they remember are the people who were genuinely interested in them as a person.
If you’re a junior person in a field, you might not think there is much you can offer—but there is a surprising amount that you can. For one, you can actively listen. It’s not something people who are used to the hangers-on experience often. (Paradoxically, they’re far more likely to eventually help you if the conversation is not primarily about how they can help you.) One way to actively listen is to ask thoughtful questions that reflect back what they are saying to you.
So, whenever you are in a conversation, why not think about one connection you can make for the person, one idea you can contribute, one thoughtful question you can ask? (This also has a wonderful effect on our brain, which “re-wires” itself).
2) Building true connection
We went through a collective near-death experience recently that brought on heightened anxiety for many of us. While challenging, this can be a beautiful way to build a connection. When meeting new people (or people we know already), why not ask questions such as “how did you navigate COVID?” The other person will likely go into the level of depth to which they feel comfortable. This question about a shared experience may spark a recognition of our similarities, and a realization that everyone is in transition in one way or another, trying to figure things out, or winging it. It brings out the humanity that is at the core of truly meaningful connection.
This also works the other way around: if someone asks us the simple “how are you” or “what do you do” question, why not answer with something that can steer the conversation into a meaningful direction, like, “I’ve recently started learning more about gardening, and am also learning about parenting, as we just had a baby!” This puts a couple of “dots” out there that the other person can connect to/with, depending on their interest.
A successful gaming entrepreneur recently used this approach. Instead of giving his usual “I’m in gaming” answer, he mentioned that he’s currently also exploring black holes and the Metaverse. The resulting conversation focused on black holes, as the other person unexpectedly turned out to have an interest in it as well. At the end of the conversation, this person liked the founder so much that he offered to make an introduction to an investor for his gaming company, even though they hardly spoke about gaming. Was the introduction planned? No. Was the conversation more fun and meaningful for him and the other person? Definitely. Was it more likely that this meaningful connection would lead to other great things? Most likely.
3) Showing genuine interest in the other person
What is important to the person you’re talking to? What is their underlying need? Their underlying motivation?
Many of us have encountered the toothbrush problem: Imagine you’re with your partner and you leave the toothpaste on the sink. They tell you, “please don’t put the toothpaste here,” and yet you repeatedly do it again, out of habit. Your partner is more and more upset the more often it happens. Of course, it’s usually not about the toothbrush itself. Most often, it’s about the underlying needs: of respect, of being appreciated.
Sakichi Toyoda—the founder of Toyota—developed the “Five Whys” approach, which posits that you ask “why?” five times when you face an issue, problem, or challenge. Through this process, we might realize that many issues are just the symptoms of a much deeper root cause—such as a lack of respect for tidy-bathroom-loving partner. This can be valuable in all parts of life, from the challenges we face at work to those in our romantic relationships. Asking why something bothers one person in a couple may allow the pair to trace their difficulties to a deeper, root problem, such as a feeling of loneliness, which might offer a growth opportunity once it is articulated.
Two friends of mine that have inspired me with their love for each other use three simple questions in their relationship to always make sure their partner’s needs and experiences are on their radar. In the morning, they ask each other, "What do you want to achieve today?" and, "How can I support you?" and in the evening, they ask, "What did you learn today?" The morning questions kick the day off with the feeling of being in it together. The question in the evening focuses on sharing observations and promotes going through the day with the excitement of wanting to share experiences in the evening. Sure, at the beginning it may feel strange to ask your partner these kinds of questions. But while you will probably stop asking the exact questions after some time, the “other-focus” stays. And the more important point here is that relationships of all types benefit from conscious rituals that show genuine interest. What rituals could you implement in your own relationships? The exact ritual matters less than the habit and the awareness you create.
These three strategies can help us establish meaningful connection(s)—and make life more fun, interesting, and successful.
Busch, C. (2020). The Serendipity Mindset: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck. New York: Penguin Random House.
Busch, C. (2020). How to create your own career luck. Harvard Business Review Digital Article, https://hbr.org/2020/08/how-to-create-your-own-career-luck.