No one would deny the importance of belonging. Feeling part of something is key to being the best we can possibly be both personally and professionally, but the nuances of belonging are important. I was reminded of this after recognizing that I didn’t exactly belong at a cheer competition that my youngest daughter was participating in. But more on that later.
When we feel like we belong, we are more apt to share open and honest feedback; give both the clearest, and wildest, of our ideas; and ask questions that we recognize may not be easy for others to hear. In addition, we are able to do so with reduced anxiety, heightened comfort and a richer awareness of who we are (and, as in my example, who we are not).
As I’ve reflected on my own experiences, here are three takeaways about the importance of belonging (and not belonging).
To cultivate belonging, reduce barriers
One of the reasons why we see so many challenges around belonging in our personal and professional lives is because there are simply too many barriers that exist regarding community development. In some cases, these barriers are erected purposefully. In other cases, we don’t even recognize the barriers we have set.
A few years ago, we realized that the structure we were using to hold regional meetings for assistant school superintendents was problematic because we were holding the majority of them each month on the same day of the week. That prevented some members of our council, who had internal meetings on those days, from attending. That led us to do a better job of coordinating our meetings so that all members of our council had an equal opportunity to join.
While a simple example, the big picture is clear: If we want to make sure people feel that they can be a part of our communities, we have to make sure barriers do not prevent them from taking part. It’s one of the nuances of belonging that unintentionally can escape us.
We can’t belong everywhere
Now, back to the example that I shared at the start of the post. In March, I spent a weekend at a cheerleading competition with my youngest daughter. I realized during that event that while I may be a present parent, I’m not a cheer dad. It isn’t that I don’t support my daughter’s interest in cheerleading; in fact, far from it. Instead, it’s that I recognize that I don’t necessarily belong to the cheer scene. There aren’t barriers that prevent me from taking part. It just isn’t my style.
In some cases, we can recognize that we don’t belong and be comfortable with it. We know we can’t belong everywhere and that sometimes exclusion is necessary. Perhaps we simply don’t have the bandwidth to be a part of every group and situation that exists. Or we know that an organization or group wants members who are fully invested and committed.
Recognize limits, nuances of belonging
Belonging anywhere has its limits. Sometimes, life circumstances change, and groups we belonged to previously no longer apply. At other times, structures within the group or organization itself change, and the requirements for belonging evolve. Priya Parker’s writing in “The Art of Gathering” supports this general idea. One of the nuances of belonging we tend to recognize more quickly is that the larger our groups of connections grow, the harder it is for us to continue to cultivate and sustain them. And while recent research has questioned the ideas behind Dunbar’s number (including by founder Robin Dunbar himself), there are limits to the number of people we can truly get to know. Beyond that limit, those connections are no longer as powerful.
So, while it is important that we all belong to multiple groups — and clearly not feeling connected to anyone or anything is a problem — we have to recognize the limits of belonging in general and be comfortable with limits on when and where we can belong.
Belonging is a necessity. In order for us to grow in ways that allow us to be successful in all areas of life, we have to be connected. Without forming those connections, our lives would be much less interesting, and much less fulfilling, than they would be otherwise — so we have to be willing to focus on belonging and the power of connections in all that we do. At the same time, we have to recognize that the power of belonging can be just as much about when and where we can’t belong as in where we can and should.
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Ende currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, “Professional Development That Sticks” and “Forces of Influence,” are available from ASCD. Connect with Ende on his website or on Twitter.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.