We started out as strangers, now we’re friends

Our tendency to divide people into Us versus Them seems to be getting worse, in both the workplace and the world. But what if we can help people experience a better way? What if people can see how even strangers - people in different places and different circumstances - can come together in a way that provides mutual support and benefit?

This past week, Anna in Germany sent me a message about her WOL Circle. She told me her group is “between 25 and 55 years old - single, married, with and without kids, all different styles of living and different career steps.” She captured a feeling I’ve heard many times before, so I asked if I could share her note today.

I'm in week 6 of my first WOL experience - and I love it!!! My circle members are the best I could have chosen. I really appreciate them and how we are growing together. 

Our WOL circle is like magic. We started as 5 total strangers with such different backgrounds and last week we met for the first time in real life and it felt like we had been friends for years.  

Thank you so much!!!

Week after week on a video call, Anna’s Circle is experiencing a very human process of giving and receiving, discovering they have much more in common than they might have expected. Their exchanges deepen a sense of trust and relatedness between them, and they feel connected instead of divided.

Imagine if we could spread this feeling of “Us” instead of “Us and Them”? Once you learn how fulfilling it is to develop meaningful connections with four strangers, you can practice it with anyone. 

Spreading the Feeling of “Us”


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?

If there is an Us and Them in your organization

Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.

The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that. 

The Trolley Experiments

A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.” 

“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team? 

Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”

The Trolley Problem.png

The part of you that decides

In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”

Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it. 

What to do?

Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.

“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"

Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.

Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups. 

When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

A friend of mine went back to his old neighborhood and was talking with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. At one point, the conversation turned to politics, and the topic of immigration came up. One of his friends made it clear where he stood.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

I immediately wondered who “our own” might actually include. Would it be all Americans or just people in his part of the country? Would it include the many millions on welfare? Those who can’t afford health insurance? People who were otherwise different from him in terms of religion, race, or sexual orientation?

It’s a primal instinct to want to take care of our own. The field of evolutionary biology describes how the bonds formed by many species who live in groups lead to pro-social behaviors that help the group succeed and pass on its genes.

Yet humans have taken this to odd extremes. Our definition of “our own” can change from moment to moment based on the context we’re in. Research has shown, for example, that even 11-year old boys on different teams at summer camp quickly form into us and them, and good and bad behaviors stem from those arbitrary boundaries. The same pattern plays out in large organizations, where no matter how we draw the lines, the infighting remains. 

The suffering that results, in the workplace and around the planet, is incalculable. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re no longer in small hunter-gather groups struggling to pass on our genes, and we don’t need to be victims of our biology.

To improve how we treat each other requires us to be aware of our natural tendencies to divide and diminish so we can extend our sense of relatedness - our sense of “our own” - to a much bigger group.

It requires an open mind to see that the other side is actually not a side at all, but human beings remarkably like us if we give ourselves the space to imagine it. 

It requires practice. Small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support, can help us gradually develop the compassion and empathy we need to make us all happier. 

This is the work we can and must do.

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful