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From connections to community

I was recently talking to a colleague about how a positive from the pandemic has been the large number of connections that we have been able to build that would not have been possible otherwise. Geography is no longer an obstacle; no matter where the expertise lies, as long as we have a reliable internet connection or phone line, we can connect people to who, and what, they need.

It was a great conversation, and both my colleague and I ended the discussion feeling as if the increase in connectivity was truly a blessing.

And yet, driving home that afternoon I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had missed an important point in the conversation. As I reflected further, I started to realize that connections are only the first step; they are not an end unto themselves. In fact, what really makes the difference is when we turn those connections into a stronger community. Once we go from knowing about someone to truly knowing them, and once we can say we know who people are, rather than simply what they know, then we have truly transitioned from building connections to building community.

How can we make sure we move from simple connections to rich community? Here are three steps we can all take.

Be interested before being interesting

One of the best ways to move to deeper connections and the building of community is by focusing on a key ingredient required for forming lasting relationships. The better we are at listening, the more valued our connections will feel. And the more valued people feel the more likely they are to want to continue developing a relationship. The best listeners are always more focused on what someone is saying then they are on crafting a response. By being interested in what others have to say (and not worrying so much about being interesting in our own right), we model our interest in building stronger relationships, and moving connections to a deeper, more community-focused level.

Recognize it is about the people, not the ideas

While the pandemic has removed geographic barriers, it has raised personal ones. We cannot gather socially in the same ways we used to, and even when we are meeting or congregating with others, the virtual mode these gatherings have to take can be quite lonely. This can make forming connections with others seem very surface-oriented, and simply focused on what others have to give or take from us; it can basically feel as if the transactional nature of relationships is the only thing at play. 

We can shift this by making sure that our focus is placed on the people we are connecting with, rather than their ideas. Getting to know a person’s backstory, as well as where they hope to go, can provide much needed context in determining how to work with someone moving forward. As an example, I recently had the chance to work with an educator who has significant expertise designing and facilitating webinars. Her expertise was important to me, and so was understanding how she got to where she is today. In fact, after asking her a particularly people-focused question she said, “That’s funny, no one has ever asked me that before. Thanks for bringing it up.” By emphasizing the personal side of who she was, rather than the expertise she brings, I was better able to build a deeper relationship.

Make it a mantra

If we want to move connections to community, then we have to clearly state the importance of this. We have to speak to it, live it, and model it, and turn it into a mantra. If we believe that connections are only the first step we have to take, then all of our actions have to show that as well. We have to focus on rich relationship building, and make sure that we are giving people time, speaking with them as professionals and colleagues, and putting energy into making sure that relationships that are faltering, or not yet developed enough, are given the ingredients they need to grow (and that we help others do the same). If we believe community is important, then we have to make sure we strive towards building community in all that we do.

Connections are important. The fact that we can connect with others in ways we could not have foreseen only one year ago shows how much we have been able to accomplish throughout the pandemic. And at the same time, the fact that our connections have bloomed, along with our sense of isolation and loneliness, tells us that connections aren’t enough. The relationships and support that community brings, that is what we must strive for, and with some listening, some focus, and some modeling, it is something we can do regardless of our roles and responsibilities.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.

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