Intimacy with a stranger in 20 seconds

Ten thousand years ago, if you were rejected by your social group you would die. To improve our collective chances of belonging and surviving, we evolved highly sophisticated ways of tracking status of group members in ways that help us cooperate and collaborate. 

Deep in our brains, we still carry this instinctual need for belonging. It may no longer be life or death, but we feel pain when we sense we’re being rejected and we feel better when we sense we’re accepted and safe.

Knowing this can change how you relate to people.

Is it safe?

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, author Dan Coyle asserts that the cultures of the world’s most successful groups “are created by a specific set of skills which tap into the power of our social brains.” The first of these skills is to “build safety,” learning how to exchange signals that build social bonds of belonging and identity. These signals, or belonging cues, communicate three things.

  1. I see you.

  2. I care about you.

  3. We have a shared future together. 

When we exchange these signals, we feel safe and accepted. When we don’t, we feel uncertain and increasingly anxious.

A fundamental human skill

The phrase “psychological safety” may seem more suitable for the laboratory than the workplace or home, but Google’s research into effective teams lists psychological safety as the first of “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google.” The belonging cues are even taught at elementary schools, using the SLANT strategy

“SLANT” is an acronym that stands for ‘Sit up, Lean forward, Ask and answers questions, Nod your head and Track the speaker.’ It is a simple technique to encourage and remind students on being attentive and active in class. 

The crux of the SLANT strategy is to enhance learning and student performance by creating a behavior incorporating the conscious use of positive body language.

Track the speaker and make eye contact. I see you. Nod your head and ask questions. I care about what you have to say. Ask and answer questions. We have a shared future together. If you think this seems silly or unnecessary, try having a conversation with your child or partner while they’re looking at their phone. How effective is that conversation? How do you feel?

Is it difficult to learn how to do this?

Recently, I heard Dan Coyle speak at a conference in Houston. He’s an insightful, intelligent, engaging presenter - and I had to give a talk after him! I related the exchanges of signals that Dan talked about to the giving and receiving that takes place as you Work Out Loud. In the workshop after my talk, I included an exercise of offering a contribution of appreciation, and a woman in the audience demonstrated how easy it can be to communicate belonging cues.

With a single sentence, she made it clear she was listening to what I had to say, was interested in it, and expected to use it in the future. Writing it took just a few seconds, and it led to a further exchange during the workshop.

But if it’s so easy, why don’t we have more successful groups and positive cultures? Because the hard part - the art of communications and good relationships - is to practice making these exchanges over and over again, reinforcing and enhancing social bonds. That’s the thing most of us struggle with. We forget to say what we feel, we avoid the risk of discomfort, we assume the other person knows.

The basis of human connection is an exchange of signals over time. What signals are you sending?