And what we can do about it!
So, who or what did you “like” today? How many times did LinkedIn ping you, telling you who had made a new connection or who had posted something new? Do you find yourself checking your email just to see who’s thinking of you or to distract yourself from the tasks of the moment? How many of us have evolved into people who send our “thank you” notes via email, or disconnected birthday greetings through the use of those electronic cards with the animated illustrations and perky little tunes?
I share my ideas and opinions with thousands of people each week, but I have no empathy for their situations, no understanding of their lives, little care for their actual circumstances.
Have you noticed how rare it seems that we mix with the neighbors, welcome newcomers to the street or gather together to assist those who live close by to repair their houses or maintain their properties? Are you telling your family you love them via text messages? Wishing your mother could learn how to use email? Spending hours sitting side-by-side with your colleagues or partner, working silently on your own computers, barely a word shared between you?
Do you, like me, ever wonder about this world we live in—one in which I sometimes know people only in an online sense, having never met them in person or heard them speak out loud? I share my ideas and opinions with thousands of people each week, but I have no empathy for their situations, no understanding of their lives, little care for their actual circumstances. I’m so busy running my virtual life that I’m feeling drained in my flesh-and-blood life.
According to Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor and Cultural Analyst who wrote Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other (2010, Basic Books), “we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
And yet, given the opportunity, most people report a desire for more “real” connections in their lives. They hanker for conversations that have depth, work situations that involve true collaboration, and friendships with people who are loyal and honest. We want communities that are economically strong, safe, collaborative and caring, and yet we have lost our way. Many people are unsure of how to create the circumstances in which they really want to live.
In her May 2012 article in The Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” writer Stephen Marche notes the astronomical increase in the number of therapists, counselors, life coaches, and other professionals who are now paid to listen. “The majority of patients in therapy do not warrant a psychiatric diagnosis,” states Marche. “This raft of psychic servants is helping us through what used to be called regular problems. We have outsourced the work of everyday caring.”
So, what can we do to rebuild the relationships we want? How can we start to invest in communities of caring and collaboration that foster authentic connections between real people? This is not a message about “tuning out” or “turning off”—technology is part of our lives. Rather, I’d like us, as professionals and colleagues, neighbors and friends, to consider opportunities in our current activities to become a little more connected to those around us. Can we find deeper sources of meaning in our new, technologically enhanced lifestyles? Can we ensure that our professional practice supports true connections instead of just relying on our fast-growing virtual world? What are the “baby steps” to reconnecting on a more meaningful level?
John McKnight, the founder of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, provides three interesting insights regarding our community connections. First, strong communities and organizations focus on the gifts and skills of their people. In business, we are often taught to look for the flaws or weaknesses of an organization or individual and determine ways to “fix” them. By contrast, McKnight recommends identifying the unique attributes, skills or gifts of an individual, organization or community, and working to enhance these gifts. This type of community development acknowledges the contributions we all make to achieve our collective potential.
In October, as we convene at our annual National Gathering, we will have an opportunity to focus on the attributes of our national network—our own community—that make us special. What makes us proud? What do we want to share with the rest of the nation? Thinking about our clients—before we search for what they are doing wrong—what can we find that we admire? What skills or organizational knowledge do they bring and how do they contribute to their unique legacies or company cultures? We build connections through the acknowledgement of gifts—not by pointing out the flaws.
Second, McKnight notes that while organized systems can be effective in providing services, they are not very good at providing “care.” Caring is an interpersonal interaction—it requires the real attention of people paying attention to real people. Machines and apps can’t do this for us. We can’t boil caring down to a process, assessment or tool. It comes from asking genuine questions and listening—really listening—to the answers. It comes from empathy, compassion, and the sharing of our most precious commodity: time. So as we bring a host of professionals together to help our client families tackle big issues, let’s maintain a sense of connection. Let’s ensure that our engagements don’t just become processes or problems to solve, but rather relationships to nurture.
Finally, McKnight stresses that the power for connection and change is in the hands of the people. Organizations, communities and people can create their own solutions, reclaim their own power and make positive changes when they stop waiting for others (elected officials, hired professionals, etc.) to do it for them. What they need is information, well-facilitated opportunities and healthy environments to come together to build their own possibilities. This is at the heart of our mission: we build strong, healthy communities, one business, one family at a time. We know that by providing the right environment—facilitating the process, keeping an open mind, and providing access to a range of options—we can help our clients to develop the solutions that work best for them. We empower as we connect and coordinate.
So, our challenge, as a community of Family Business Advisors, is to continue to develop our skills in creating opportunities for positive change. Our focus is on meeting structures, exercises and discussions that encourage our clients and our network to explore their own issues and discover their own solutions. This means listening instead of telling, exploring instead of prescribing, facilitating and coaching instead of managing and leading.