Are You Good at Connecting With People?

Sometimes we need a “mirror” to let us know what is going in our relationships; it is easy to get into a rut in our interpersonal space with others. You may have been married to the same person for 15 years, and you are stuck in old patterns that seem to work, but maybe one or the other is not feeling satisfied. Maybe at work you are experiencing friction with a boss or coworker and you do not know how to connect with them, but you’ve written it off as a lost cause. You may not be best friends with everyone you meet, but we can choose to try to connect, to try to understand each other.

Here are a few simple checkpoints for connecting with people:

 1.  Are you a good listener?

Are you ever texting on your phone or watching TV while someone is talking to you?  Listening well takes full concentration. Our brains can only really concentrate on one thing at a time (as shown by students trying to multitask in lectures who did much worse on tests); multitasking is actually just switching from focusing on one thing to another, over and over. To listen, and therefore connect with someone, one has to fully be present in the here and now. If you find yourself only catching bits and pieces of conversations throughout the day, chances are you have not developed your listening skills, and more than likely, the people around you know that you are a limited listener.

Focus on research and the brain
The term “executive attention” means focusing and concentrating on things that requiring monitoring, resolving internal conflict, making decisions, looking for errors, making sense of new information and overcoming standard habits. Executive attention networks are located in the front part of the brain— the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and underlying striatum.

anterior cingulate cortex

Anterior Cingulate Cortex

executive attention, anterior insula

Anterior Insula

Executive control helps regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviors. This is often tested using the Stroop word-color interference task. This is sometimes referred to as “self-control” in adult studies or “self-regulation” in child studies. Higher “executive attention” has been related predicting to social skills, empathy, school performance and even income and quality of human relationships. It is important in multitasking, because it guides your focus. You may be able to move your executive control back and forth from your smartphone to a person you are talking with, but you can’t do them both at the same time. You can cook something you always cook while talking on the phone, using your executive control for the phone conversation, but as soon as you hit novel issues (the milk is gone… what do I use instead?), your executive control is focuses on the novel issue and not your conversation. When trying to connect with someone, having your executive control present for the conversation and not focused on other things facilitates connection.

2.  Do you ever feel disconnected?

In psychiatry, when we talk about disconnection, we talk about it as an actual, concrete state, with tangible symptoms. Symptoms of disconnection can include dizziness, numbness, distractedness and lack of emotion. Disconnection is a self-protective occurrence where our brain works to decrease the intensity of what we are feeling. We shut down and cocoon ourselves. Because people react subconsciously to things, you may experience disconnection and dissociation regularly, but you may not know what is triggering it.

3.  Do you respond negatively to feedback? Do you ask regularly for feedback?

Some feedback is difficult to hear, even when it is constructive. We don’t see ourselves like others see us; we may be defensive or short and abrasive and never know it unless someone gives us feedback about it.

Asking for feedback from those around you is important. If you don’t receive it positively, others may feel intimidated to share. Knowing how we are perceived is an important part of growing in connection.

4.  Do you experience empathy for others, even when you disagree with or do not understand their point of view?

Last week I was with a patient who was angry and emotional about their social media presence; they had posted a selfie and only four people “liked” the picture. As someone who has made it my life’s goal to talk with others about their deepest feelings, if I was not in tune with the patient’s experience, I would have thought that the topic was unimportant. Instead, I have learned to empathize with the feelings on the subject matter, even if I am still trying to more fully understand the subject matter itself.  

We may not understand the meaning of the intense emotions someone feels at first if we are looking only at the content. Consider if this person might experience the lack of attention to their picture as rejection, and it might bring up feelings of their parents neglecting them, or a series of relationships in which the boyfriends were emotionally unavailable. Either way, it is not about the picture, it is about how the social rejection made them feel. If we are thinking that what they are feeling is not a big deal, we should consider that we don’t understand the other person.

If we jump into our own experience and say, “Well guess what happened to me,” we may be missing a moment of connection with their experience.  Connection occurs when we resonate with people’s emotions and seek to find the meanings that are linked to the emotions.

5.  Do you feel awkward when you watch someone experience intense emotion?

From birth, when we focus on another’s movements, emotions and intentions, our brain lights up automatically (and largely unconsciously) in around 10% the same way. Our own body state can be derived from someone else’s body state! This process is important for empathy, intuition, and understanding another’s experience or subjectivity.

“Mirror neurons dissolve the barrier between you and someone else” (Vilayanur Ramachandran). Gallese, who discovered and named them, said he wishes that he had called them “sharing neurons.” When we focus on each other while we are sharing, we experience, to some extent, the other person’s emotions and experiences. Identifying when this occurs allows us to better understand and connect with the one sharing.

If you feel awkward when you watch someone else experience intense emotion, it may show that you are avoiding experiencing your own emotion, and are not aware of the depth of your own feelings about situations that have happened in your life. Suppressing emotion like that can lead to even physical ailments. Next time you are with someone feeling intense emotion, be curious about how you are, to some degree, starting to feel like they are feeling. Then consider how you can best show understanding and create connection. Emotion is an opportunity for shared experience and connection.

6.  Do you work to resolve conflict or do you resolve to not have conflict?

Avoiding conflict can be something we learn to master from early childhood—conflict isn’t fun for anyone. But avoiding conflict can be harmful to our connection and even our personal emotional growth. Knowing how to resolve conflict is a large part of growing up, but if we were never taught how to have conflict and receive feedback, chances are that we do not know how to fight fairly, even as adults with full-time jobs and full-time families.

When we experience conflict, we usually respond in one of three ways—connect and attempt to resolve, fight or flight, or emotional shutdown. Even when we feel anger in conflict, we do not understand it. Anger is actually a healthy emotion, and it is not meant to be judged. Anger’s original intent is always to reoconnect and protect, both of these are healthy reactions, but when we do not know how to connect or how to experience and express emotion, conflict can be a harmful and dangerous struggle.

In what ways could you better connect with people? Why is this topic important in your life?

Kraushaar, James M., and David C. Novak. “Examining the affects of student multitasking with laptops during the lecture.” Journal of Information Systems Education 21.2 (2010): 241.
Rothbart, Mary K., and Michael I. Posner. “The developing brain in a multitasking world.” Developmental Review 35 (2015): 42-63.