Human connection is not so common in our age of connectivity. We see lots of people, but find our little cocoons to hide in.
As I write this, I’m sitting in cloud-filled rainforest at a retreat in Ecuador. Before I came, I had some anxiety about meeting everyone, worrying about what they might think of me, and thinking that I would be awkward at talking to everyone, or wouldn’t fit in. This anxiety made me not want to come. That would have been a huge mistake.
I realized that I was telling myself a story about how bad I am at public speaking and at meeting new people, and about how unworthy I am of others liking me. So I asked myself if it was definitely true, and the answer was, “I don’t know.”
That “I don’t know” can be scary, so I decided I had to look at the “I don’t know” in a different way. I told myself instead, “I don’t know, and I would love to find out. Who knows what I’ll discover?”
This helped me to get on the plane, and then I was forced to meet an entire group of 24 strangers. While here, I’ve opened my heart, and they came in with kindness and changed me. It has made the effort of overcoming my fear and anxiety completely worth the effort, a thousand times over.
So how do we connect with others, when it’s hard to overcome the thoughts and beliefs holding us back?
- Put yourself in a place with people who share your interests. This retreat is filled with people who are trying to change their lives and are interested in mindfulness. That’s such a rare thing, to be with a group of people like this, but we each made the choice to come here. Find a group like that—at a small conference, a retreat, a group meeting, a running club, a tech meetup, anything. Search online for ideas, and say yes to at least one.
- Overcome your resistance. I always find resistance in myself to meeting up with people and bigger resistance to coming to give a presentation or meeting with a bunch of strangers. The resistance can keep us from ever getting out of our comfort zones. Don’t let it. The benefit of connection is so much greater than the resistance. You should push through it.
- Smile, and be curious. When you meet these scary strangers, open yourself up. Smile, ask them questions, and try to find out more. People often appreciate a good listener, and asking questions can start a conversation and keep it going.
- Share when you can. While listening is better than talking, I’ve found that when I can be vulnerable and share my fears and struggles, people feel they can do the same. This is when you make a real connection, getting below the surface. It takes a little skill to know when you can open up, and how much you can share—you don’t want to share your deepest secrets as soon as you meet, but you can slowly open up, as the other person does the same. Some people are not comfortable opening up, so don’t push it too deep or expect everyone to want to make this kind of connection, but be open to it.
- Open your heart. These are other human beings in front of you—and they have tender hearts and pain and hope, just like you do. Open your heart and see who you find in front of you—and appreciate who you find. Be yourself, and trust that you are worthy of others’ love as well. Let others in.
- Connect in groups and one-on-one. If you’re at a conference or in a big group of 20 or more people, it can be hard to really find connections. I much prefer one-on-one conversations, so I’ll try to turn to someone and start a private conversation if they’re open to it, getting to know them better. I also value small group conversations, with three to six people. I think they can be great bonding experiences and a lot of fun.
- Don’t hide in your phone. Many of us have the tendency these days to use our phones when we’re in crowded public spaces, but when you’re going somewhere (like a conference) that has a lot of people, it’s a big mistake to shut yourself off. Instead, seek interaction, even if you feel awkward about it. I like to start off with a simple question, or sometimes with a simple joke that diffuses the tension.
- Practice makes you better and more comfortable at it. I’m certainly not the world’s best conversationalist, nor the most comfortable talking in a group. However, I’m better now than I have been in the past, because I’ve been purposefully practicing over the last decade or so. I still have a long way to go. But it’s amazing to see the progress I’ve made, and the more I do it, the less nervous I get.
- Take the opportunity to dive deeper and find clarity. If you can have good one-on-one conversations, or even small group talks, challenge each other to go deeper into your struggles and challenges, aspirations, and life purposes. You’ll often find a lot of clarity in these talks.
- Offer support. I often offer to give someone accountability if they say they’ve been struggling to deal with a habit. Or if we’re both struggling with something, we might try to support each other’s efforts to overcome it in the near future.
- Make an effort to keep in touch. If you make a real human connection, find a way to keep up the conversation and even meet again in person, if possible. If it’s not possible, make a Skype date so you can talk face-to-face.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, nor to be any kind of expert. I still get nervous and awkward, but these ideas have helped me and I hope they can help you. Simple connections with wonderful human beings have changed my life this week, and the power of the love from these connections has left me amazed.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net