It seems to be a paradox of our times that while we are supposedly more connected than ever, there are many signs that we are also more unconnected than we’ve ever been.
For the last year or so, between my work for Global Leadership Foundation, I’ve been working as the Victorian state coordinator for a project called The Welcome Dinner Project. Initiated two years ago by not-for-profit joiningthedots, The Welcome Dinner Project helps to organise events in people’s homes at which new arrivals to Australia and established members of the community share a pot-luck style meal.
These events are now so popular that we struggle to meet the demand, and while one reason for this is obviously a desire amongst many Australians to meet people from other cultures and welcome newcomers, there is, I think, something deeper going on here. An increasing number of people are simply longing for more opportunities to make real one-on-one, face-to-face connections with their fellow human beings – connections that they are not finding easy to make elsewhere.
People want meaningful conversations – especially with people who may be different from them. However they are finding that there are often barriers to doing this, whether for geographical reasons, fear of embarrassment or simply not knowing how to go about meeting people who are new to Australia or from a different cultural background to our own.
We may go to a local festival or cultural event and move amongst other members of the community, connecting with music and entertainment, but not each other. We may have quick conversations when we are out and about with people who lead different lives to our own. A chat with a local shopkeeper, with a fellow dog-walker, with a neighbour while bringing the bins in. But these conversations seldom move beyond the superficial. We want more.
People who attend Welcome Dinners tell us that they do get nervous. You’re going to a stranger’s home, bringing a plate of food they may or may not like, worried that you may do or say something culturally inappropriate. And while volunteer facilitators attend the dinners to help get conversation going with a few informal rituals, ultimately the people who attend are willing to risk some potential discomfort in order to have meaningful conversations with others who are different from themselves. What’s more, attendees leave the dinners telling us what a positive and reaffirming experience they have had – and that they have been longing for this opportunity.
The desire for deeper connection isn’t just restricted to our home lives and the desire to learn about other cultures. In the work of Global Leadership Foundation we have noticed a similar theme.
Within organisations all over the world there are ‘conversations’ happening all the time, however a great many of them are superficial and many of them are more one-way communication than true dialogue.
If we think about any typical business event it will usually involve a lot of time during which a few people (the presenters) are speaking while everyone else listens. Of course there are the conversations that happen during the breaks, but again they tend to be relatively shallow in the limited time available. Conferences are designed for attendees to learn from ‘the experts’ and not necessarily from each other. Inside the office things aren’t much better. Endless meetings provide face-to-face contact, but often people leave these meetings feeling ‘unheard’, that they are devoid of the opportunity to have deeper conversations about our work or ourselves.
However again, given the opportunity, people relish the opportunity to connect and share themselves, their values and their story.
Some of the work I love to do with Global Leadership Foundation is to support organisations and teams to become ‘Thinking Environments’. The term ‘thinking environment’ refers to the conditions that need to be present for people to think at their best and be their most creative and courageous. Interestingly, what I have been noticing in Thinking Environment workshops is that while the content is important and people want to learn about the concept and how to apply it, more than that people just want to be together in a face-to-face situation devoid of all the distractions that come with work and life. They want proper conversations. They want to share with one another in a meaningful way and build trust. And they relish any opportunity to do these things.
While the Thinking Environment and the Welcome Dinner Project are quite different ideas, what they both do is allow people to make stronger, more real connections through meaningful conversation. And they also leave people who attend them with a new sense of trust, hope and connection.
To me this signals an urgent need for us to create more opportunities like these. Put simply, we need more ‘spaces’ (both physical and energetic) in which people can connect. And when we have these spaces we need to create conditions that ‘grease the wheels’ of deeper conversations. With the Welcome Dinners food plays a big part. With the Thinking Environment it is largely about learning how to give someone generative attention to create a space where their ideas can flourish.
And there are so many other ways that this might be done, and so many other examples of how meaningful conversation is being recognised as important. Philosopher David Whyte will soon be visiting Australia to share his ideas around what he calls ‘Conversational Leadership’. ‘Living Libraries’ are starting to appear in which ‘readers’ can borrow a person instead of a book in order to share that person’s insights and wisdom. Even digitally, popular Facebook pages such as ‘Humans of New York’ and ‘New Humans of Australia’ introduce you to an ordinary person’s often extraordinary story. All these things build empathy, trust and remind us of our common humanity.
However you do it, now is the time to start thinking about how you and your organisation might facilitate and benefit from deeper connections and conversations that uplift the human spirit.