The Critical Importance of Human Connections

I recently read a Huffington Post article where the author argued that addiction is essentially an adaptation to a lack of human (social) connections. Although I’m not typically a fan of reducing complex social problems to simple explanations, my light bulb went on a BIG way. And here’s why.

For many years, I’ve been involved in developing models for social service programs. Those programs frequently identified “connection to community” or “connection to personal networks” as a stated outcome. It just became a kind of given; I mean, of course we should try to make sure people are connected with the resources and supports that could help them! It was an acknowledgement that no human service program could do it all or be there forever. It was the ‘after-care plan’. Perhaps we thought we could work ourselves out of a job. The Huffington Post article made me start to think that I’ve had it all backwards. Maybe connections – creating and maintaining meaningful relationships with people that we care about and that care about us – should be the first order of business in all human service work. Or in life, for that matter. Maybe instead of starting out by asking “what’s your diagnosis?” or “what medications are you currently taking?”, we should ask “who loves you?” or “who will be there for you when you get home tonight?”.

My “aha!” moment brought me back to my PhD dissertation work. In essence, I argued that a firm belief that your supervisor (leader) and your co-workers were supportive of you in specific ways was a key determinant of how much impact you could have with your clients. All things being equal, workers that felt truly supported by their leaders and by their co-workers were able to go out and create supportive relationships with their clients. And those supportive relationships seemed to be what made the difference. In fact, we’ve known for some time that feeling like you have a positive and supportive relationship with your counsellor is an excellent predictor of whether you will have a good outcome from counselling regardless of the counsellor’s clinical method. We also know that the degree to which families feel supported by services is a strong predictor of them achieving positive outcomes regardless of what those services actually do. But what the Post article highlighted is that it’s more than just a few relationships or connections with human service workers or social programs that matter. It’s truly being connected; being part of a community in ways that meet the need for a sense of belonging, being connected to a network of people that share and support and encourage you. And maybe that’s much of what I was seeing in the programs I studied. Leaders, and those they led, were able to create caring communities of individuals who shared in the common (and often difficult) experience of challenging work around which they could bond. In turn, those workers added to the network of people that cared about, and ideally fostering new connections for, their clients. Although I think my dissertation work still stands and helps to draw out the specifics of how leadership connects to client outcomes, I realize now that what I was really pointing to was that felt sense of connection and being understood that people yearn for. In fact, one of my favorite leadership authors (Margaret Wheatley), argues that human connection and belonging is one of two core needs that humans have. The other is the need is to be free and autonomous, expressed through being able to create. On the surface, none of this seems like rocket science. But as my colleague Kim Lyster pointed out to me, it’s difficult work because it challenges norms of individualization, independence and self-sufficiency. In other words, it’s in a kind of dynamic tension with that other core human need that Margaret Wheatley talks about.

The implication of all of this is that we should be focusing, first and foremost, on the ecology of relationships in just about every kind of human and social service that gets offered, including in health and education. I’m sure most of us would agree that the teacher we really loved and learned so much from was the one we really related to. If human connectivity really is the key ingredient, then forming and encouraging connections becomes the first order to business. And it suggests that the ‘hard to serve’ populations we deal with (e.g., street entrenched, severe and persistent mental health issues, chronic substance abuse) are perhaps the most difficult to do this with as well as the ones most likely to experience massive benefits if we are successful. It involves rethinking or reframing the cause of their distress as a lack of belonging rather than some fault that lies within them that we indict them for.

So how do we go about creating strong meaningful relationships and a sense of belonging with those we work with and for? Although that subject could easily take up a book, my view (based on my dissertation research) is that trust is a critical ingredient. It’s something I discussed in another blog post in the context of leadership. And I believe that building trust requires vulnerability and starting from a place where you feel a sense of responsibility for others. Vulnerability is a topic that Brené Brown handles beautifully in her Ted Talks and her books. I believe that establishing trust through a willingness to be open and vulnerable (to ‘lean in to the discomfort’, as Brené puts it) offers a path forward in building better, more effective human service programs that truly connect and reconnect people.

A final note… I want to thank my friend and colleague Kim, who provided me with great feedback on this article. She will be defending her thesis soon which explores the need for belonging as fundamental to our well-being and as essential as food and shelter in the hierarchy of needs. I can’t wait to read it.

Comments

  1. Well put, Warren. I want to add to Kim’s point regarding the dynamic tension between the human need for a sense of connection and the competing need for independence. I believe that we when we get this balance right we are “inter-dependent”. living in reciprocal relations with our friends, family and community.

    The “hard-to-serve” client has experienced so many disruptions and disappointments that they have difficulty with a forming a healthy connection with themselves, let alone others… even those us trying to help. These clients often develop beliefs and behaviours to preserve their fragile sense of self and hold others at a safe distance. Thus, the hard-to-serve client is often hard-to-be-with, too.

    Preparing staff to work with these clients and supporting their work in the face of client resistance is a critical leadership role. I frequently used the “good teacher” exercise (Reflect on the good teachers in your life, not just school teachers but anyone in your life. How would you describe that person? What were their qualities?) Invariably, the responses fall into themes of connection, high expectations, and resilience. “I knew she believed in me, in my potential, and she was there to help me get back up again even when I screwed up.”

    This exercise can motivate staff to be that good teacher for their clients but all to often, staff efforts at connecting with client are rebuffed. Sometimes in very dramatic ways. Helping staff to reframe these client behaviours, however strange, even threatening, as the clients’ best efforts to manage their connection/independence needs enables staff to see beyond the behaviours to the underlying attachment dynamics. With this insight and coaching, they can persevere working with challenging clients.

    In summary, I concur with your overall thesis and that the single best tool staff have in their toolkit is their capacity for empathy and forming therapeutic relationships, particularly in the face of challenging or resistant clients. Our challenge is to develop and support staff to find and maintain this therapeutic “sweet spot”.

    • Warren Helfrich says:

      Thanks for the feedback and comments Ken. I think the need humans have that is in a kind of dynamic tension with connection is more accurately described as “autonomy” – the ability and freedom to make choices and to be able to express ourselves. I see that as fundamentally different than isolating or withdrawing as a protective mechanism, which is I think what you’re getting at in describing the challenges of connecting with hard to serve populations. I agree with your thoughts on how we support staff to connect with those individuals, though the ‘aha’ moment I had (and that lead to writing the article) was that staff should be just as (or perhaps more) focused on fostering real connectedness outside of the professional relationship. In fact, I would argue that the therapeutic value of forming a therapeutic alliance is simply to provide a client with ‘proof of concept’. To help them to see that it’s possible to experience unconditional support and empathy no matter how horrible or damaged they believe themselves to be.

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