In the age of social media, it often feels like we’ve lost touch with how to connect with strangers and friends beyond the interface of a news feed or a mobile app. Despite thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, research shows we are lonelier and more depressed than ever before, with one in ten Americans over the age of 12 now taking antidepressants.
We know everything there is to know about people's lives via our news feed and Instagram—what they ate for dinner, who they are dating, what article they read on Buzzfeed—and yet, do we know how they are feeling, or what’s really going on in their lives? Whether it’s Facebook-induced FOMO that’s to blame, or an increased reliance on text messaging, email, and social media rather than in-person interaction, one thing is clear—many of us have forgotten how to develop deep, authentic connections with other people.
Enter pro-connector Sarah Bishop, an MBA student at London Business School. Sarah is on a mission to get our real friendships back.
Her new book, The Connection Agency, offers useful strategies for you to have interactions with others. Rather than a book about how to network, successfully exchange business cards, or gain more Facebook friends; it's about how to ask interesting questions that make others think—questions outside of the realm of “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” It's also about how to listen effectively, make eye contact, and put away your phone when you’re talking to someone. Above all, it’s a book about forging meaningful relationships with friends, partners, co-workers, and family, by finding the right situations for deep connection, collaborating with others, and pursuing adventure and play.
Sarah is the former fellowship director of StartingBloc, a leadership development program for young professionals interested in social innovation and entrepreneurship. When I attended StartingBloc, I became best friends with 100 strangers overnight. It probably wasn’t random that I had more fun in a day that I had had in the previous six months, so I asked Sarah how she helped facilitate those connections.
“First, we established the common interests and passions all of you shared—mutual interests promote connection,” she explained. “Next, even though you barely knew each other, all of you had to dance to Michael Jackson together—doing something silly made everyone a little more vulnerable. Then, we led a number of group activities—working on projects together bonds people towards a common goal.”
In addition to Sarah’s experience running StartingBloc, The Connection Agency is based on numerous interviews with “connection agents” all over the world, who tested the “homework assignments” that appear in the book, in real-life situations.
Authentic connections take a lot more time and care than pressing the like button. Here are three simple assignments taken straight from The Connection Agency that will help you build stronger connections with your friends and the people you meet everyday.
Connection Assignment #1: Meet Someone New
In this assignment, you’re going to be the saving grace of everyone you first meet. Let’s start with a contrast: Imagine a typical get-to-know-you scenario. You meet someone and he kicks off the conversation with the, “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” questions. Does that instill a determination to keep the conversation going? I can see your eyes rolling. You, on the other hand, will approach someone you’ve never met, and use a unique question to kick off the conversation. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- What’s your hobby; what do you do for fun?
- I’m new to the city and looking for a great restaurant; what’s your favorite?
- What would you put on the daily calendar of every person in the world, if you had the chance?
- When was the last time you picked something up while walking on the street? What was it, and why did it grab your attention? \n
The connection agents used this assignment to make friends in ice cream shops, elevators, and bars.
Connection Assignment #2: Build Something
People bond when they’re doing something constructive together. This assignment involves convincing a small group of people to participate in a mini-building session. Propose a question about something that you could all build or do, and immediately encourage others to contribute. Options include: Where should we go on vacation? If we designed a café together, what would it look like?
You get the idea. Once people start offering responses, pull out a pen and begin to write down their ideas on a napkin (this is a signal that you’re listening intently). Ask questions until the conversation gets moving, then keep quiet and allow others to step in. One group of connection agents imagined a restaurant, and another actually began building a company. Another agent planned a reunion for college friends, and more than one group planned a road trip.
Connection Assignment #3: Choose Your Setting
One of the simplest ways to motivate someone to change their behavior is to change the physical setting. In this assignment, select someone you’d like to get to know better, and invite them to a new hangout, somewhere other than a bar. The setting that you choose should reflect your connection goals. If you’re aiming for a deeper conversation, try inviting a friend to your home. Looking for a challenge? Use a context change to make your already-strong relationships even more dynamic. Bring your mom to a concert, or invite your boyfriend to a yoga class.
I know from experience that the techniques in Sarah’s book work. Recently, I was at a literary festival, and instead of asking everyone I met “What do you do?” (and pretending to look surprised when they answered, “I’m a writer”), I led with, “Hi, nice to meet you, what do you do for fun?” One woman told me she was an avid hiker, and we made plans to go hiking.
Facebook and other forms of social media are incredible tools for staying in touch with friends across the world, sharing ideas and projects, and building alliances. But, every now and then, it’s worth remembering that nothing is more powerful than connecting with someone in-person who makes you feel special.