As we sit in physical isolation, what better time to reflect on what helps to nurture deep connections with others? This is a natural sequel to my earlier blog post on viral flows.
Building deep trust-based relationships
As you probably know, I’ve long been a champion of flows that will help all of us to learn faster and to achieve more of our potential. The richest flows are those that occur among people as they interact with each other and build deeper relationships.
This is because the most valuable knowledge is tacit knowledge – new knowledge that we have acquired as we act in our specific contexts and that we have a hard time articulating for ourselves, much less for anyone else. As my colleague, John Seely Brown, likes to say, tacit knowledge is very “sticky” – it doesn’t flow easily because it’s challenging to share. The most effective way of accessing tacit knowledge is by forming deep, trust-based relationships that allow us to work closely together and watch each other in action.
So, what’s required to build these deep, trust-based relationships? Well, of course, many things, but let me start by focusing on context. People trust each other only if they believe that the other person really understands who they are. And understanding who someone is involves the ability to read their context. None of us live in complete isolation, even in these trying times. We have a rich social and economic context that shapes our emotions, beliefs and actions.
Who are the people who matter to us and why? What are the economic pressures and opportunities that can motivate us to act? What is it in our environment that inspires us or, alternatively, fills us with fear? What are we trying to improve in our environment and why? Alternatively, what obstacles or barriers are we confronting in our environment that are limiting our ability to have the impact that matters to us?
The more we can show that we understand the context of the people we’re connecting with, and what they’re trying to achieve in that context, the more likely those people will be to trust us. And here’s the catch – contexts are fractal. Each context resides within a broader context.
For example, someone’s immediate context may be their nuclear family, their home and their job. But that context is shaped by a broader context of their extended family, their neighborhood and the department they work in. And that context in turn is shaped by a broader network of relationships, the town or city that the neighborhood is located in and the institution that the department resides in. I could go on, but you get the point.
We need to make an effort to understand those broader contexts for all the people we’re connecting with so that we have a rich understanding of the many factors that may be shaping their emotions, beliefs and actions.
And it becomes even more challenging. No context is static. In a rapidly changing world, the contexts we live in are rapidly evolving. We need to try to understand the dynamics that are shaping the context of others. The most powerful way to build trust is to anticipate how someone’s context is evolving and how their needs and aspirations might evolve as a result.
Create shared context
Building deep relationships is not just about reading context. It’s also about creating new context. How do we do that?
There are many ways, but one powerful approach is to frame an inspiring opportunity and powerful questions that need to be answered in order to address the opportunity. If we can frame an opportunity that can motivate us to come together and collaborate on shared goals, we’re much more likely to trust each other than if we see ourselves as operating in separate contexts with independent goals.
This leads me into my work on opportunity-based narratives. As I’ve written before, I make an important distinction between stories and narratives, even though most people use these terms as synonyms.
For me, a story is self-contained – it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are about the story teller or some other people, they’re not about you, the people in the audience. In contrast, for me, a narrative is open-ended – it focuses on an opportunity or threat out in the future. It isn’t yet clear whether the opportunity or threat will be successfully addressed. The resolution of the narrative ultimately depends on you, in the audience – your choices and actions will determine how the narrative resolves. Narratives thus represent a powerful call to action.
For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I believe opportunity-based narratives are particularly powerful in a time of mounting pressure when more and more of us are experiencing the emotion of fear. They can help us to overcome that fear because we’re coming together to achieve something that is exciting and inspiring.
Opportunity-based narratives can provide a context for framing powerful questions. What are the questions that need to be answered before the opportunity can be realized? Once again, these questions are a call to action, but they’re much more.
They provide an opportunity to express vulnerability – to openly acknowledge that we don’t yet have the answers we need and that we need help. Willingness to express vulnerability builds trust and that builds much deeper relationships. These questions also provide a very tangible context for our relationships with others – we’re coming together with the goal of answering challenging questions that can provide the key to unlocking big opportunities.
Deepening and scaling connections
Here’s a challenge. Really deep relationships don’t scale. This is why I’ve become a champion of creation spaces which I’ve explored in greater depth here. The basic building block of creation spaces is a small group of 5-15 people who come together very frequently (often several times each week) and who are committed to acting in effort to achieve a shared outcome. Their interactions focus on framing the actions that can have the greatest impact and reflecting on the impact that has already been achieved in a continuing effort to accelerate impact. By coming together in this way, the participants in each small group develop deep trust-based relationships with each other.
But how do these connections scale? These small groups come together into networks that provide a way for participants to connect more broadly in their quest to scale impact. They are connecting because they are inspired by the same long-term opportunity and driven to answer the questions that stand in the way of achieving the opportunity. These networks provide a context for collaboration in the quest to address a shared opportunity.
Context matters for cultivating connections. But don’t just take context as a given that needs to be seen and understood. That’s just the beginning. The most powerful way to cultivate connections at scale is to shape a new shared context that can bring more and more people together and encourage them to build deeper relationships with each other. Shaping shared context can help all participants to learn at an accelerating rate and recognize that they can accomplish a lot more together than they could ever achieve on their own.