We Are Not Alone: How to Build a Sense of Belonging, One Conversation at a Time

December 13, 2012

By: Ryan W. Quinn


Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

Seven billion people worldwide. Instant connection to almost anywhere, anytime, through electronic media. Working in and with organizations day and night. It’s hard to imagine anyone could ever feel alone.

Many sociologists, however, believe—and with good evidence to support them—that people in our society are feeling more alone than ever, not less.

Organizations are a particularly curious environment in which to feel alone. In some of them, people may work with others up to 16 or more hours per day. How could someone could feel alone in such circumstances?

Yet people do. So many friends, colleagues, and executives have told me that—despite a world of work spent almost entirely interacting with others—they have felt so alone at work that it seemed they had no one to whom they could turn when the going got tough. As a result, they suffered serious emotional struggles, in some cases lasting for years. The costs of feeling alone are high—both short-term and long-term.

Where does feeling alone come from? And how can we counteract it?

Sharing Our Struggles

What’s the opposite of feeling alone? Feeling like you belong, feeling like you are appreciated or even loved.

A few days ago I gave a talk. During the presentation, I decided to share some personal experiences about some professional struggles and how I’ve dealt with them. I talked not only about their effects on my work, but also about how they spilled over into my personal life. Many group members stopped to thank me after the talk. Their most frequent comment? “I thought I was the only one.”

Often, my colleagues and I run an exercise in which we ask people in the room to get into groups of four with people they don’t know very well and share with each other stories from their lives that have helped each to define who he or she is as a person. By the end of the exercise, these relative strangers often feel closer to each other than to some of their longstanding colleagues or friends. In our observation, that’s because people so seldom share these kinds of experiences with anyone else—even their close colleagues and friends.

It’s worth asking why.

For one thing, people don’t like to talk about failure. And they often perceive struggles—even those they eventually resolved—as failures. Yet these stories define us. Whether it is fear of the stigma of failure, or simply not wanting to burden others with our struggles, these stories get left untold. And so we feel alone. Unacknowledged. Misunderstood.

The Impact

Given that fact, think again about the impact of sharing these stories. Is it worth the risk? Sharing our defining moments, good and bad–ccan transform our relationships and help keep us from feeling alone. We come to see others—and ourselves—as beings worthy of deep respect. We see them as part of our greater human connection. And we feel like we too are a part of that deeper connection—no longer alone.

The effect of this transformation on a workplace can be extraordinary. Collaboration becomes desirable rather than risky. Newfound trust speeds up our ability to accomplish things. Work becomes a place where we can increase our sense of meaning, accomplishment, and impact, rather than a place of increased loneliness. It becomes a place to connect.

A Caution

Of course, sharing personal stories has risks. There is such a thing as sharing too much information (a common slang acronym is “TMI”). Sometimes, it may not be TMI, but merely sharing something at the wrong time or place. Another issue is trust: Just as sharing personal information can engender trust, it can lead to disappointment should you discover that the person you’ve confided in has violated it by repeating your revelation to others.

So we are wise to be cautious about doing this, in whatever form we may do it in. Be open—both to sharing yourself and to learning how to share yourself in your work relationships and within your organization’s culture overall.

Courage

Change always occurs when people have the courage to share themselves. If you do so wisely, that change is for the good—creating the opposite of feeling alone. And that opposite is the sense of belonging that, ultimately, we all crave.

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