“People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world,” sang Barbra Streisand in the 1964 Broadway musical, Funny Girl. Although I had heard this song probably thousands of times, I recently looked up the lyrics and discovered a deeper meaning:
A feeling deep in your soul
Says you were half now you’re whole
No more hunger and thirst
First be a person who needs people
We need relationship with others to be whole. Someone who leans in to being in relationship with others is satisfying a human need on par with hunger and thirst. Those moments when we feel known and seen by another, and/or when we really see and know another person, are some of the luckiest experiences we humans can have. That’s why, when Streisand sings, “people who need people,” it resonates.
Relationships with family, friends and colleagues enrich us. We even make meaningful connections with random airplane seatmates on a short flight. Moreover, what about relationships with people whom you see as different from you? Research says we need those people, too.
How Contact with Others Alters Your Brain
Contact is the opposite of avoidance. It requires stepping in, stepping forward, risking connection and risking rejection. Our beliefs, fears and biases can prevent this connection and contact with people who are different from us. And, by my way of thinking and seeing the world, this is a tragedy.
Many of us can relate to the experience of having a fantastic conversation with an Uber, Lyft or taxi driver about something they are dealing with, no matter what their cultural heritage or background. When we listen and share in an open, non-judgmental way, we are changed. We feel “fed.” We feel that connection of shared humanity. Although we may not immediately recognize it, these interactions change our brain.
The psychologist Gordon Allport, in his seminal 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, proposed that our filters or biases are reframed when we have contact (and even more significantly, when we have relationship) with people who are different from us.
In our unconscious bias workshops, we share several research studies to support Allport and many other social psychologists’ perspectives that stereotypes and intentional and unintentional discrimination are reduced when we have contact with groups we may consider “other.”
This is Your Brain on Relationships
In a 2012 study by University of North Carolina examining the hiring behaviors of 1,300 heterosexually married men in the US and UK, the men married to homemakers overwhelmingly chose male candidates over female candidates, qualifications and accomplishments being equal. Men with wives who had careers of their own equally chose male and female candidates in the study.
The message in the study is clear: Conversations about work and career between wives and husbands can “rewire” men’s implicit associations about women in the workplace, and can break down social programming about gender roles.
In 2014, in the largest study of white male leaders’ engagement levels in corporate diversity and inclusion efforts, Greatheart Consulting and PwC discovered that white men who had a female or non-white confidante in the workplace were 30-50% more likely to recruit, hire, mentor and promote women and people of color than white men who did not have similar relationships.
Again, Gordon Allport’s contact theory is at work: I see candidates and teammates through different lenses … with less bias … when I have been in significant contact and relationship with people from often-stereotyped groups.
One of my mentors, the founder of Innovations International, Dr. William Guillory, is fond of saying, “The biggest challenge to a stereotype is reality.” How can I hold a bias when I have so many examples, through meaningful contact, that old, tired beliefs or attitudes that I may have absorbed and adopted from societal and family programming is just that: Old and tired?
While on her book tour for Becoming, former FLOTUS Michelle Obama told an interviewer, “It’s hard to hate up close.” Same idea, framed differently and elegantly.
Practice: The Trusted Ten
In our workshops, we present the idea of the ease of gravitating into relationship and trust with people like ourselves and the value of intentionally developing relationship with people who are different from us with an activity called The Trusted Ten. Check out this short video that explains how this could help your leadership efforts and expand perspectives on the teams you lead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_52T8ufdZM
My Holiday Wish: Just Connect
During the end-of-year holidays of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and winter solstice, I hope we all remember to extend our eye contact, our smiles, our kind words and our conversations to people who dress, eat, worship or look differently from us … and not just to “PLU’s “ (people like us).
I hope, while we’re winding down the last days of this year at work and at home, that we connect with others through authenticity and kindness. I hope we can see past political disagreements with our families and our teammates, and look deeper to remember that we need each other. Let’s take the loving words of holiday songs to heart and live them.
Happy holidays, and here’s to a fantastic New Year for you, yours and the new and different connections you’ll make.