As we kick off 2023, many of us may be reflecting on the past year and thinking ahead about how we want to show up and who we want to connect with in the new year. This topic may be especially important, given that research shows that loneliness increased for Americans during the pandemic.
In this episode of Breaking the Bias, Holly Corbett, VP of Content for Consciously Unbiased, spoke to Susan McPherson, author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships, to find out how we can use technology for good to reverse the growing trend of disconnection, build more meaningful relationships and authentically diversify our networks and overcome similarity bias. Relationship building takes time, but Susan shares practical advice for how we can focus on making connections and expand our networks without feeling overwhelmed.
Listen to the full episode here, and read below for some key takeaways from the conversation.
*This is an excerpt of the interview, and has been condensed for length and clarity.
CORBETT: “What’s the difference between networking and connecting?”
MCPHERSON: “Networking is when you walk in a room and think about, ‘What am I going to gain? What am I going to walk away with? How is this person helping me?’ Connecting is walking into a room and thinking about, ‘Hmm, here’s my superpowers. What can I be doing in this room to help these people and make a difference?’ When social media became so prolific and it became super easy to just zap out a DM on various platforms, we stopped really thinking about what the ramifications are for that…I wanted us to get back to a time when we were more intentional, when we reached out to people, when we connected people. I wanted to get back to the days of what my parents did with the telephone and the typewriter.”
CORBETT: “In what ways has your upbringing shaped how much importance you place on connecting?”
MCPHERSON: “My parents literally were serial connectors. Every morning at the breakfast table in the 70s in upstate New York, my parents would have the five local newspapers laid out, plus the New York Times and The Boston Globe…They would be clipping every time they saw an article that made them think of someone. Then they would go to their respective manual typewriters and type short little notes, put those notes in envelopes and off into the postal mail they went. This was every single day. I swear to you, I thought everybody’s parents did this.
In the 90s when I was coming of age professionally and the internet happened, I could take what they did and be so much more efficient. I could put 10 friends or colleagues on the same email chain, and send them an article and say, thinking of you. Therefore, I was connecting all of those people. And then when social media happened, I took it to the next level. Instead of getting on Twitter in 2007 and being like, ‘Here’s what I ate for breakfast,’ I was like, ‘Dave, you need to meet Sloan and you need to meet Holly.’ I would use the means to connect…it was very much rooted into me as a young child.”
CORBETT: Can you give some examples of the benefits that you’ve personally received from cultivating all these connections throughout your life and throughout your career?
MCPHERSON: “Every good thing that has ever happened to me—and to almost everyone I know—happened because of connections and introductions. So I want us to take it more seriously than think it’s just for fun or just for social status or for more likes on a particular [post.] It’s actually real life happening.
I have to credit what’s happened in my company—the clients, the work we’ve been able to do, which is all around impact—all came from various people that I met. The boards I’ve been able to sit on and serve on around things from refugee issues [for the UN Refugee Agency] to better journalism through The 19th News, and my work with supporting women led founders, all came from connections.
I’ll also share another lesson learned that is important on this journey: Get rid of our preconceived notions. Early in my career and probably even mid-career, I would restrict my reaching out to people who I thought could help. Who might be able to get me that promotion or raise or board opportunity. Instead of thinking about what we don’t know is what we don’t know, and everyone we meet is an opportunity to learn, and to really lead with curiosity. One thing my dad and my mom embraced in me was this notion that every single person we meet on this planet—no matter whether they have the highest job at IBM or happen to provide amazing food at a restaurant you go to—they are deserving of our kindness, our compassion, our curiosity, and our care. And that has been a real grounding for me.”
CORBETT: Relationship building takes time, and you are a master of it. Any advice on how people can focus on making connections and expanding their network at work without feeling overwhelmed or burning out?
MCPHERSON: “In the first part of my book, there’s a section called Gather, where you do a self-audit to determine what your goals are in the next year, the next three years, and the next five years. Then you really think about, who is it that you want to connect with, or reconnect with? Let’s not forget we have a lot of dusty contacts that perhaps, for whatever reason, we drop the ball or they drop the ball and it doesn’t hurt to reach back out. Yes, some will ghost you and that sucks, but at least you’re the person trying.
Sit down and make a list: who are the people that you aspirationally want to meet? The beautiful thing is—unlike 30 years ago when I had the Yellow Pages and the Encyclopedia Britannica to look people up—now you can find out almost anything and everything about people. Then you can find out your degrees of separation. Just so everyone knows who is listening, I know Kevin Bacon, so now everyone is two degrees or one degree away [laughs].”
CORBETT: There is so much research out there showing that diversity increases innovation due to including different perspectives and voices. Yet similarity bias says that we tend to gravitate towards people who look or think like ourselves. How can we overcome similarity bias and build a more diverse network in a way that is authentic?
MCPHERSON: “Great question. And actually also covered in the Gather portion of my book, where I talk about how we need to do everything we can to intentionally break out of our hermetic-sealed bubble that we all live in—myself included. Of course nothing is one size fits all, but I’ll tell you a few of the methods that I’ve used over the years…I moved around a lot and zigzagged the country throughout my career. Every time I would move to a new location, I would find the time to volunteer, either for a local civic organization, political organization, or nonprofit, to meet people who are not like me, but may have similar values.
Here in New York City when I got involved with the Lower East Side Girls Club, 85% of the girls who belong and visit are of color. It was a very, very, grounding experience for me to learn about their lives, and how they’ve grown up in an area that has the most wealthy [residents] right against the most underserved in New York City. The same with getting involved in local political organizations. It’s a great way to meet people that are outside your comfort zone. I know people are like, ‘Oh my God, I have no time,” but it is one hour a week.
Secondly, ask people you know who are connected to people. It’s okay to admit, ‘My network is extremely monolithic. I know you know Gene X or Joe Z. I’d love an introduction, because I’d love to learn how I can be supporting them and vice versa. I think sometimes we’re afraid to ask, but nothing is going to happen if we don’t actually vocalize it.”
CORBETT: Is there anything else that you think is important to ask that I haven’t already asked you?
MCPHERSON: “I would like to share with anyone and everyone that if you think that this is kind of a frivolous activity, I will tell you the science shows that if we make meaningfully connecting a core part of our beings, we’ll live longer—the same way as if we were to eat kale every day and run every day. I love kale, however, my running days aren’t quite what they used to be. So if I can have a longer and a healthier life span because I’m making meaningful connections, so be it. That’s what I’ll do.”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “An Active Social Life May Help You Live Longer”
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