We Belong Together: How Communication Fuels Connection and Community
In this episode, Geoffrey Cohen shares how communication can help us find the connection we crave and need.
When it comes to emotional and physical well-being, Stanford psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen says there is one healthy behavior that outweighs the others: authentic connection. “It is really, really important,” he says.
Deep connections with other people are foundational to a happy and healthy life. As Cohen explores in his book, Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, achieving a sense of belonging isn’t just a nice-to-have — it’s essential. “That sense of connection is so woven into our DNA that if we don’t have it, we suffer,” he says. “Not having that sense of connection with other people does great biological damage and seems to be one of the major contributors to disease and mortality.”
As Cohen and host Matt Abrahams explore in this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, effective communication is the tool we need to build strong connections with others and enjoy a deep sense of belonging.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Matt Abrahams: Communication not only helps us learn and understand, but it helps us to connect and to feel a sense of belonging. My name is Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I look forward to speaking with Geoffrey Cohen. Geoff holds many appointments at Stanford. He is a professor of organizational studies in education and business at the Graduate School of Education. He’s a professor of psychology and a lecturer in management. Geoff research focuses on applying research-based interventions to pressing social problems. He recently released a book called Belonging the Science of Creating Connection in Bridging Divides. Welcome, Geoff. Thanks for being here. I am really excited for our conversation.
Geoffrey Cohen: Thank you, Matt, for having me.
Matt Abrahams: Let’s go ahead and get started. Can you define what you mean by belonging?
Geoffrey Cohen: Hmm. Well, it’s a great question. I could go on at length, but let me give a quick answer. Belonging is the sense of being included and accepted by a larger group. It’s that feeling we get when we feel like we’re part of a larger whole that accepts us for who we are in the ideal state. So it’s both a state, and a process, a noun and a verb.
Matt Abrahams: And it seems like in both of those, both the noun and verb version, that there are lots of benefits that it confers on us. What are some of those? How does belonging help us?
Geoffrey Cohen: Well, as human beings, we are fundamentally social creatures, and we’ve evolved to kind of have a social orientation because we need each other to survive and to thrive. Otherwise, we’re just highly vulnerable to predation and disease out there in the wild. And so the human species has evolved to go through life together, and that’s actually what the word belonging means: to go together.
And there’s all kinds of benefits to joining together, right? We can solve common problems together. We can do together what as individuals we could only imagine doing. We’re capable of great projects and products, but also in addition, down to our very biology, we crave connection when we don’t have it, when we feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. This what’s called a state of loneliness. It actually does biological damage. It’s one of the most toxic environmental, social environmental factors out there to not have that sense of connection with other people does great biological damage and seems to be one of the major contributors to disease and mortality and early death.
So I would say that the benefits to belonging are that we can together do more than we can as individuals, but also biologically, psychologically, that sense of connection is so woven into our DNA that if we don’t have it, we suffer.
Matt Abrahams: Belonging and feeling connected sound like they’re absolutely critical to just being human. And it sounds like from a benefit side, there are productivity benefits, but there are also psychological, relational benefits. And certainly there are biological challenges if you’re lonely and not connected or feeling a sense of belonging. And I can only imagine that there are lots of mental consequences.
It strikes me that belonging can come in two different varieties, at least. There’s a “big B” belonging where we feel connected to others at a deep emotional and fundamental way as we do with our lifelong friends and family, but also a “little b” belonging where we feel connection in a more superficial like way. For example, followers we have on social media that we’ve never met, or someone who shares a birthday with us, or even somebody who likes the same sports teams as we do. Does a “little b” belonging, help us in the same way as Big B belonging does.
Geoffrey Cohen: Big B belonging is better.
Matt Abrahams: I like the alliteration.
Geoffrey Cohen: Big B belonging is better. I, you know, one of, in the Harvard study, for example, one of the big predictors of longevity are quality social connections, quality social relationships. It’s as important, I think it’s about the effect size is about choice, the effect size of having healthy diet or exercising, having good social connections, that sense of being accepted for who you are, that kind of authentic sense of connection that is, I think, very hard to get online through these very superficial “small b” connections that we have online. That sense of being accepted for who we are, that authentic connection is really, really important. But also that sense of being of service to others, being someone who matters, who’s important to other people to give, is to create love.
Those deep connections are so good for our health and well-being. So much so, that even if you do these little studies, my friend Sonja Lyubomirsky and Steve Cole and Barb Fredrickson have done these little studies where they just randomly assign people to create these more deep, deeper, or meaningful connections by doing acts of kindness throughout a couple weeks. So they instruct people to either do something good for yourself that you enjoy or do something that’s helpful to other people, an act of kindness. Then they look at biological markers of inflammation and they find that inflammation is much lower among those people who engage in these acts of kindness of service to others. That’s not the kind of thing we get online. I mean, I’m not denying that that’s possible, and I’m not denying that people who have faced a lot of exclusion and who can’t find their niche can find some sense of home online. That definitely happens. But I think too often the social media kind of relationships that we have are not high quality. They’re voyeuristic often and performative often, and that doesn’t have the same kinds of benefits for wellbeing and personal strength.
Matt Abrahams: So it sounds to me that that stockpiling followers and friends online might not be the best strategy. Having a few close, really intimate friends, if you will, is important. You’ve already begun to, to shed some light into this, Geoff, and I’d like to push you a little bit more, but what are some strategies and tactics we can use to build and enhance our sense of belonging and our personal relationships? And, and what role does communication play in in that?
Geoffrey Cohen: I’ve already mentioned one of them, and that is giving. Being of service is one way to create a powerful sense of connection. There’s research, for instance, on teenagers, adolescents and what benefits their sense of connection and helps their health and wellbeing. And one answer turns out to be volunteerism. Getting involved in volunteer activities where you’re serving some pro-social service, pro-social cause bigger than yourself, that is very beneficial. That’s one strategy is to engage in activities in which you are giving to others and being of service to others. And it’s not something that I think comes naturally to us today in our era. We are often in committing these sort of what are known as affective forecasting errors. What we think is good for, for us in our connections isn’t necessarily actually good for us in our connections. We think that often pursuing our own status and self-interest will bring us health and happiness.
And it turns out that that’s not nearly as impactful as doing good for others.
In terms of communication, I think communication styles are, are really important for maintaining our relationships, being able to communicate in an effective way, such that we not only express our personal interests and preferences and desires, but are respectful of others. That’s so important.
Just to give one example, I know that sounds like a platitude in the abstract, but just to give one example, one of my former students, Michael Schwalbe, did a, did a great study looking at the political divide, and he wanted to make that go smoother, such that liberals and conservatives could talk better with each other and more respectfully. And he found that most of the time that didn’t go well. People were kind of resistant to the points of view of the other party, but he found that one little communication strategy had a big effect.
And that was to use two words before you expressed your point of view or your position on a policy. And those two words were: I think. “I think this person is better.” This is from my point of view, this is my position. And he found that just using these sort of linguistic markers that create a sort of subjective space for someone else’s point of view that say, “Hey, this is a sort of common space where we’re trying to figure out together the best way to look at this issue.” That that actually opened up the other side to learning more about people’s own position, made the other side less likely to denigrate the person speaking and just created more curiosity and common ground. So that’s just one example of how our communication can foster these kinds of connections, even in difficult conversations.
Matt Abrahams: I really like this notion of being in service of others, doing volunteering as a way to help you feel connected. I love linguistics and just using, “I think” makes you sound less definitive and it makes you sound more open to other points of view. And so I, I appreciate that as good advice and I think I should employ that more frequently.
So how can we, as colleagues and managers create more inclusive and welcoming communities to foster belonging? I believe you have a term you call situation crafting. And how would that play into this?
Geoffrey Cohen: Situation Crafting refers to the art and the science of creating situations that are conducive to a sense of belonging and that bring out people’s personal and collective best. And it’s based on this insight from social psychology about the power of situations. So oftentimes when we’re looking out there in the world, trying to figure out the causes of behavior, we blame people, we overestimate the importance of things like ability and character, these sort of internal traits. And we underestimate the importance of the situation. Like people may have some circumstance that we don’t know about that’s affecting how they’re dealing. A lot of times students, for instance, act out in class because they’re feeling uncertain about their belonging in school, uncertain about how they’re seen. And it’s not so much that they are troublemakers, but rather the situation of school creates this feeling of alienation in them that leads them to behave in these ways that are, that are just not, not healthy for themselves and, and for the, and for the school.
So by changing the way we act, what we say, what we do, we can change situations for the better often, sometimes even in profound ways. For instance, Greg Walton and I did a little study where we were looking at how to create more belonging among students, college students, making the transition into college, which is often a time of huge belonging uncertainty where people are uncertain about whether they belong and whether they can find a home. And all we did, I’m going to sort of simplify, is to share with those students the stories of senior students at their school. And these stories conveyed to them, “you know, I had a lot of trouble adjusting to college myself, and over time things got better.” And what we found that was that over the course of two years, that that little experience closed the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. By half students of color are often the ones who are experiencing stronger belonging uncertainty in college.
Matt Abrahams: You also brought up as a great point of where communication comes in. Helping people craft stories that they can then share with others is, is important. And creating an environment where it’s okay to share vulnerability can help as well. And I can imagine organizations could set up opportunities to get together like affiliation groups, et cetera, to invite people to come connect. So if there’s a group of people at work who like to exercise, they could go for a run together. Or if they’re people interested in learning about a new topic. As managers and colleagues, we can invite people in to feel that sense of belonging. Is that a reasonable thing to do?
Geoffrey Cohen: I think so. And I think our theories of what makes people happy don’t often include that. And our theories of what makes workers and employees productive often don’t include those little opportunities for seemingly meaningless connection. But it’s not really meaningless. I would often find as a young professor that I could feel intense belonging, uncertainty when I was starting out. I really felt, you know, with all the silverbacks there at the university I wasn’t sure if I belonged. And then, yet, I’d be going to the copy room and bump into a student in my class and we’d have a, a little conversation about the class or a reading and some I felt feel better, I’d feel better, I’d even feel more energized.
And I think that’s what these little, what social psychologists call passive contacts do. You meet at the water cooler when you join a little club to do something together like exercise or enjoy a hobby together. These things that we don’t really have theories, good theories for explaining why they make people healthier, why they make people more productive, they actually really do matter. So I think you’re absolutely right, and I think managers and leaders can create those opportunities for connection. And they can also just through inquiring about people’s interests and values, asking good questions, “I just want to get to know you better” also create that.
Matt Abrahams: Thank you for that. I think everybody can tick off that list of things they can do at work as managers, as colleagues, to really help people.
I want to flip the coin a little bit here. When Robert Cialdini was a guest, we talked about ways people can use our deep connections with others and our sense of belonging and need to belong as a way to manipulate or to influence or persuade us. Which leads me to wonder: is there a dark side to belonging that we should be concerned about?
Geoffrey Cohen: You know, this issue comes up a lot. Belonging is a psychological need. We have a need to belong, which can be channeled into either good outcomes or bad. And I think too often it’s exploited for bad outcomes. That need to belong, if we’re not getting it, if we’re not fulfilling our need to belong through work or through mainstream institutions or through our family, we become vulnerable to the appeals of hate groups, extremist groups. We become vulnerable to the views of our political tribes, just conforming to them out of a need to belong. I think what this means is that if we exist in a society where people aren’t getting those sort of constructive channels for belonging at work, at home through their family and their schools, then they become vulnerable to these other much more destructive forces. And that’s a big problem.
Matt Abrahams: Before we started the podcast, we talked about, we played the name game since we had some overlap at Stanford. And I studied with Phil Zimbardo and he had a class on the psychology of mind control. And one aspect of that was around cults and how cults prey on people who feel disconnected and they provide opportunities for connection. And when I started teaching persuasion and influence on my own years later, I started a cult in my class to demonstrate this. And we started the Church of Chocolate Obsession “Cocoa,” and I was Brother Kara. We read from the Holy Truffle. I mean, it was this whole thing. But the point was to show to students how very quickly in the matter of a 20 minute class activity, we were able to create a sense of belonging to something that was completely ludicrous. Hershey kisses and Godiva bars. But the point is that sense of belonging is strong and can be manipulated. And I think you highlighted the downside potentially of it.
Geoffrey Cohen: Yeah. It’s easy to be manipulated.
Matt Abrahams: So Geoff, before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me. Are you up for that?
Geoffrey Cohen: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Here we go. Question one: If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Geoffrey Cohen: Listen to people’s hearts, not heads.
Matt Abrahams: Okay. Listen to their hearts, not heads. So talk to me about listening to people’s hearts. What does that mean and what does that look like?
Geoffrey Cohen: Oftentimes when we get in these conflicts with people who engage in behavior that we find objectionable, the underlying causes are emotional issues. They’re emotional issues and what people are saying their points of view, their opinions don’t, you know, but they’re often reflections of these underlying emotional issues and concerns such as not quite feeling like one belongs. And some of the examples that I gave to you earlier, such as a student in school who acts out, that might seem like, that might seem like the kid just has really bad attitudes, these, or beliefs about how they should be in school, something in their head, but actually it’s something in their heart. They’re not quite feeling like they fit in in school. And so a good teacher, a good educator, listens to that and understands that, you know, just like me, I can just like myself, I can act in regrettable ways when I’m not quite feeling at home. And so that’s what I think listening to people’s hearts means.
Matt Abrahams: I really like the way you phrase that. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s operationalized empathy, right? It’s really tuning in to what you’re seeing and experiencing, not just what you’re hearing. So thank you. Question number two: Who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Geoffrey Cohen: Marshall Rosenberg
Matt Abrahams: Tell me more.
Geoffrey Cohen: A psychologist who passed away, and he was actually the originator of that quote, which I distill down to seven words. He was like a Jedi master of listening, and he would say he would have these very difficult conversations with people from a wide, not only with different political beliefs, but people who are highly prejudiced bigots. And you just try to talk to them and listen. And people are like, “how could you do this?” And he’s like, “you know, I have just learned that I really can maintain my love for people and enjoy life a lot better if I listen to what’s in their hearts. Not so much, not pay so much attention to what’s in their heads.”
So he has this technique of nonviolent communication in which you begin. If you have some problem with someone, you begin with an emotion. You know, “I feel disrespected, I feel upset, I feel angry when, when you do this,” when for instance, you leave the dishes in the sink and you don’t clean up because I have a high need, psychological need to be respected. Too often we don’t begin with our emotions. Instead we just try to control the other person. And this method of nonviolent communication is something that really stuck with me, in which you just begin with what you’re feeling and you explain how what you’re feeling derives from the psychological need. And it’s then that you make an ask for a change in behavior. So he’s one person that really stuck with me as a master communicator and listener.
Matt Abrahams: And that’s exactly what I was going to point out. I asked the question about a communicator and you went to somebody who, who starts communication by listening. And that’s often forgotten, right? We often think about the words people speak or write or sing. And in fact, listening is, is a super powerful if not more powerful way to communicate. At first, let me ask you question number three. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Geoffrey Cohen: As you said, listening, doing what social psychologists call perspective getting, which is asking good questions and listening to the answers. And then communicating your point of view respectfully using some of these linguistic markers that indicate this is my first-person point of view. So I think that those three ingredients are really crucial. Listening to the other person, listening to what’s in the heart, not so much what’s in the head, asking questions that dig a little bit deeper so that you get people’s perspective rather than assume it. And then after that’s done, providing your point of view in this sort of respectful way that makes it clear that this is your first-person point of view.
Matt Abrahams: I really find that process helpful. Listen, inquire and then share from your own perspective your response and taken together that is a good recipe and series of steps that we could all benefit from. So, Jeff, this has been a fantastic conversation. This notion of connecting and belonging are critical. Communication plays a central role in that. And your best practices and specific references to research and ways that we can work to foster belonging and connection are really important. Thank you for your time and thank you for your advice.
Geoffrey Cohen: Thank you Matt, for a wonderful conversation.
Matt Abrahams: You’ve been listening to another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This podcast was produced by Jenny Luna, Kevin Patel, and me Matt Abrahams, with special thanks to Podium podcast company. To find more episodes, visit our website at gsb.stanford.edu or find us wherever you get your podcasts, including YouTube. For more business-related content, follow the Business School on social media at StanfordGSB. You can also find the podcast and follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram.
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