A lot of the way that I work is built around a hunch…this idea that in today’s fast-paced world, where superficial interactions and information overload have become the norm, there are very few of us that don’t have a growing yearning for genuine connection and meaningful conversations.
But I’ve also come to realize something else. That despite our yearning, it isn’t easy to do. It seems that many of the scripts for our standard social interactions – whether it be with a small group of friends or a large gathering of our peers – limit our ability to go too deep or get too close.
I’m an engineer by training, and as such I often get asked how it is that I came to do the work I do. But the engineer is still here. I’ve taken my fascination for how systems work and interact and applied it to the alchemy of human connection and interaction. Seemingly paradoxical scenarios like this delight me, because I see huge potential for innovation and creativity. Particularly when it comes to how we gather and bring people together. Whether it’s asking a different question, or pausing long enough to seek greater understanding, I believe that it's high time we put more effort into creating spaces where individuals feel seen, valued, and connected.
To give you a glimpse of what I’m talking about, I wanted to share an example from some recent work I just completed where we had a chance to put these ideas into action.
Towards the end of last year, I was invited by the Planning Committee for the Minneapolis Nonprofit Executive Leadership Summit to help them re-design their annual gathering. The Summit had always been structured along the lines of a conventional conference model: a few experts giving keynote addresses (the ‘sage on the stage’ as I refer to it), and lots of social lubricant in the evenings to help speed up the important part of building relationships and creating connections. But for years the feedback had been consistent – the highlights of the event were the ‘in-between’ moments – around the coffee station, walking between sessions and yes, over evening drinks.
This kind of feedback is not at all surprising, because these types of traditional event formats often leave little room for genuine engagement. So together with the forward-thinking Planning Committee we set out to reimagine how their network of leaders gathered. Our goal: to establish a space that tapped into people's inherent longing for human connection, while providing a framework that fostered inclusion and nurtured meaningful conversations.
The impact of this redesigned event was nothing short of remarkable, with 95% of respondents rating the format as “Good” or “Excellent”. I was particularly enthused by comments such as “I loved that we embraced spending time together…With this format, I was able to do that. It was so valuable and now I feel like I have new friends, rather than a lot of acquaintances.” Or “I came away feeling rejuvenated, connected, curious, and challenged to level up as a leader. I also developed such deep affection and appreciation for my peers.”
"Blessed are those brave enough to make things awkward, for they wake us up and move us forward."
I also want to make note of the handful of comments that indicated a slight level of discomfort at the new format and say that I’m okay with that. Embracing a space for meaningful conversations often entails a degree of discomfort. However, it is within that discomfort that the true magic happens, offering us the chance for personal growth, collaboration, and strengthening our sense of community. As one of my favourite podcast hosts Glennon Doyle reminds us, "Blessed are those brave enough to make things awkward, for they wake us up and move us forward."
As I reflect on the overwhelmingly positive feedback, it is evident to me that rethinking how we approach the way we come together and connect with each other is essential. Meaningful conversations and authentic connections have a catalytic effect on individuals and communities alike. They inspire us to explore new perspectives, challenge our assumptions, and foster empathy and understanding. They have the power to ignite collaboration, spark innovation, and drive positive change in the world.
I invite you to join me on this journey of reimagining how we gather and connect. Let's challenge the scripts of our social interactions, break free from the limitations that hinder us from going deep and getting close.
Do you dare yourself to ask a different question? To linger in the pause? To embrace an awkward social moment in the spirit of fostering more authenticity, vulnerability, and genuine engagement with each other.
Together, let's cultivate spaces that nurture genuine connections and embrace the power of conversations that truly matter. Because in a world yearning for deeper connections, we have the opportunity to be the catalysts for change.