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Creating Belonging in a Fragmented World

Belonging is a natural human need. Without it we do not thrive, and yet in a busy and sometimes overwhelming world, true belonging and the peace it brings, can be hard to find. For me, belonging is where you can show up as yourself and feel at home, you are accepted and loved for who you are, physically, emotionally, quirks and all.

A lot of my work with clients is rooted in neurobiology, and there are very good scientific reasons why connection and belonging are important to us. We are all hungry for meaningful connection in our lives – even when we have plenty already. When we feel connected, or like we belong, we function better as individuals and as a society.

While we might play down the need to connect and play up our individualism, self-sufficiency and independence – the brutal reality is that humans don’t function in isolation. We are connected creatures.

Put very simply, your autonomic nervous system, – the heart, brain, gut connection, is around 80% sensory fibres, which means it reacts to information picked up through your reticular activating system, (RAS), from what you see, hear, feel, smell and taste. It will seek to reinforce what you believe, look for more of what you are focussed on and most critically seek to keep you safe by prioritising information that suggests you might be in harm’s way.

Here’s where it gets interesting. What you believe to be harm’s way and what I believe could be profoundly different, sure – burning buildings and mad axe men (unless you were at last year’s Brave Fest), are potential harm, but there is also a massive variation in our individual perceptions of danger versus safety and in our tolerance of the perceived risk. It is these perceptions, or how you feel, that creates the chemical reactions on which your body functions. Much of this activity takes place within the limbic system of your brain.

Connection and a feeling of belonging – creates a sense of bonding and empathy, it reduces risk perception for most people. This is in part because we feel safe, can afford to be more vulnerable and let others get closer. This is very different to ‘fitting in’ where we adapt our behaviour, our look, even our opinions in order to fit in with the group we are with. This can have the exact opposite neurological effect to belonging, creating a state of heightened awareness, sometimes an internal clash with your internal values, or loss of identity, even feelings of anxiety. Fitting in is not good for the human condition, even though it is what most of us are taught to do from a very early age, through subtle conformity, at school, in clubs, peer groups, professions, long before we get to culture, religion, sex etc.

Anyway, back to business before I really get on my soapbox. Recent neuroscience research – check out Matthew Lieberman’s work – shows our brain’s default state is social thinking – when it has no tasks to process our brain defaults to social processing or making sense of other people and ourselves.  Your brain is busy working to make sense of other people; what they think, feel and desire and how that relates to you. In other words, how and where we belong and when lack of belonging puts us at unacceptable risk. Social isolation creates the same reaction in the brain as physical pain, the distress it causes is very real and has major health ramifications.

It also has ramifications for how you do business. If you can create an environment where those you want to connect with, your business community, (not just your clients), feel connected like they belong, they will hang around and you will have a greater opportunity to influence and serve them.

How do you create a sense of belonging?

First of all, belonging is usually values or belief driven. This means people will buy into your why, your reasons for doing things or believing what you believe, long before they buy you. They will connect through because you inspire them or they are on the same journey, or fighting the same injustices and because they are trusted and can make a contribution. Yes, you read right, to feel like they really belong your clients want to make a contribution. Whether this is as simple as feeling their opinion is valid and heard, or whether they want to feel aligned with what you stand for in some way, they want a common experience – something they can be part of.

I can already feel some of you prickling and saying this is very ‘coachy’, but it is absolutely true of product too. The obvious example is Apple versus the rest of the IT world, but let’s think a bit more laterally – what if you buy toothpaste. Some people will buy the cheapest, some will have a favourite brand and others will make a choice based on sustainable palm oil and deforestation – that is belonging. Evidence also suggests that people will pay a premium to feel like they are part of something doing good. Whatever you sell, to a large extent you are selling the experience.

To create belonging around your business you need to define the experience you give people. Communities people want to belong to have some common characteristics. These include shared experiences and common outlooks; they are a place where members can self-identify as part of that community; members need to feel they are adding value to the community, sharing, learning and contributing, and that their engagement makes a difference.

What can you do to create this around your business? First up, it takes time, most people are quite capable of doing this, they just give up too early. You need to put the effort in, to be authentic and human. The temptation to only share the glory stuff, or to big up what you are doing – success or drama, won’t build you the connection or belonging you need. Here are my five tips for creating belonging.

  • Be real – share what you believe in, what you stand for, what you won’t allow.
  • Create desire for association – give your community a reason to belong. This is about experience, what you do for them, what they do for each other, how this exchange takes place, often the simplest things work best – the creation of an online group, meet ups etc.
  • Showcase members of your community – share their successes, not just your testimonials, show your wider community what your closer circle (often your actual clients), are doing and their experiences.
  • Create a way for people to exchange knowledge and ideas – as well as sharing your knowledge widely and freely – remember people like to add value, don’t be too precious about controlling ideas and information.
  • Build rapport – this is critical, depending on the size of your business you may not have personal interaction with every person, but they need to feel they have a personal relationship with you and your team – not your company or website, belonging is personal.

If you take nothing else from this blog take this –

“People remember how you make them feel more than anything else – handle those feelings with care”

Connection and belonging are hugely important to me in life as well as business, it was the main motivator behind Brave CoWork. I know not everyone can join us in Stratford, although you are welcome to drop by if you are in the area and need a place to work, grab a coffee or hang out with some great people (I’m talking about our members here as well as the Brave team).

If you’ve enjoyed this and want some virtual co-working join us in Braver Business (our Facebook community).