• Jonathan Gruber

Building a Culture of Connection

What will it take to imagine and usher in the Relational Era?

To explore this question, we partnered with NationSwell through their Build It Back Better initiative. We invited several of our partners to share insights from varied domains—political bridge-building, civic engagement, racial equity, religious pluralism, social healing, and intergenerational connection, to name a few. As this group of brilliant leaders explored this big question through conversations and articles, nine pieces of practical, thought-provoking wisdom emerged.

1. Establish norms for hard conversations. Disagreements and conflicts arise even in settings where people are ostensibly bound together by a shared identity—members of a congregation, colleagues in a workplace. Asking people to bring passionately held, opposing views into a candid conversation is perilous. One helpful approach, Rick Weissbourd of Making Caring Common suggests, is to create a moral framework for conversation. This means naming concrete norms; for example that “people can assume that their beliefs—but not their fundamental worth—will be contested.” In a moving capstone conversation, Parker Palmer offered a similar concept of a “conversational covenant” that a group defines together and agrees to abide by in navigating hard conversations with grace and good faith.


So what does this mean? We need to define how we want to connect with each other in difficult conversations just as much as naming what we need to talk about.

2. Approach curiosity as a muscle to strengthen. “If we start from a place of curiosity and listen for what we can learn from others,” write Niobe Way and Crystal Clarke of PACH, “we disrupt not only the stereotypes we hold of them but also the cultural ideologies that promote them.” Some practical skills can help us hone this kind of openness, like PACH’s practice of transformative interviewing. Caroline Mehl at OpenMind writes about the evidence-based tools they offer to strengthen intellectual humility as a mindset and a skillset. Steven Olikara of Millennial Action offers jazz as a metaphor for the kind of listening we need—listening deeply for the unique timbre and flourishes of each instrument. At the same time, curiosity must extend from generous listening to inner reckoning. As Krista Tippett of On Being explains, this requires a willingness to challenge our assumptions, to be changed by what we hear.


So what does this mean? We need to embrace a more expansive kind of curiosity, raising the bar for what’s required of us and, in turn, deploying curiosity as a tool to enhance our relationships—close-in and across divides.

3. Invite vulnerability but don’t ask it of everyone equally. We enlarge our understanding of each other when we express mutual vulnerability. It can help forge trusting relationships, remind us of our shared humanity, and foster a sense of belonging. As Lennon Flowers of The Dinner Party pointed out in one of the working groups, “The things we are good at avoiding talking about are some of the best generative tissue for building strong community.” Yet she also noted that grief, trauma, and pain—while universal human experiences—are not experienced equally. It’s therefore easier and safer for some people to show vulnerability than others. We need to give people space to be vulnerable on their own terms and on their own timetable. We also mustn’t expect vulnerability from everyone. What this requires, Rick Weissbourd writes, is that we ask: “what burdens should [we] be asking people to bear and whom should [we] be asking to bear them?”


So what does this mean? We need to make it okay for people to opt out of certain conversations and, at the same time, encourage others to step up—especially those for whom doing so is less risky.

4. Elevate narratives of possibility. Part of what gets in the way are narratives that define people as their problems. In a working group on storytelling, David Bornstein of Solutions Journalism Network emphasized the importance of stories that spark imagination rather than judgment and stigma. We need to foreground people’s assets and aspirations, not their deficits and challenges. “We can only truly understand people,” David said, “if we understand their aspirations.” At the same time, we must upend the perception that human beings are essentially immoral. As Jason Marsh of Greater Good Science Center writes, research shows that this view is flawed. What’s more, he explains, “our assumptions and expectations about human nature actually seem to dictate human behavior.” If we emphasize people’s potential, it’s more likely they’ll rise to it. In a similar vein, Jacqueline Novogratz describes the need for moral imagination, “the humility to see the world as it is and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be.”


So what does this mean? We should remind ourselves to seek out and talk about possibility; not to paper over the problems that thwart us, but to center hope and agency in working toward a better future.

5. Create opportunities for people to do things together. Constructive conversations and affirming narratives help till the soil of connection. Authentic bridging and belonging emerge when people plant seeds together—when they do things collaboratively. In describing the need to engage religious diversity, for example, Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core points out how social action campaigns and civic projects can activate interfaith leadership and strengthen bonds across faith communities. Marc Freedman of Encore.org makes the case for intergenerational service as a vehicle for bridging generational and racial divides and for combining the distinct talents of old and young in addressing community challenges. Working together toward a common goal is one of the most powerful ways for people to come together and nurture relationships, especially across difference.


So what does this mean? Don’t rely on conversation alone to build bridges between groups; invite people to roll up their sleeves and do things together. The point is not to erase or ignore people’s differences but to put them aside in service of shared purpose.


6. Take steps to build a bigger 'we'. While we all have a deep yearning to belong, it’s not okay when some people’s belonging is predicated on others not belonging—on being deemed “less than”. john a. powell of the Othering & Belonging Institute calls this toxic belonging. When we see it, especially from the inside, we ought to call it out and ask who’s not here and needs to be as part of what we’re co-creating. What this comes down to, john said at the kick-off conversation is, “Are we willing to actually build a society of belonging where we care about each other and where we turn toward each other, not turn on each other?” In the same conversation, David Brooks talked about the role of people who can credibly serve as links between communities that are at odds and can act as bridgers or “weavers” in the service of fostering a greater shared sense of who belongs. This requires social courage, as it often triggers the ire of people on both sides of a fraught divide.


So what does this mean? In the communities to which we belong, we should question the consensus on who’s not welcome and why and envision what it would look like—and what it would take—to widen the circle.

7. Invent and embrace collective rituals. While ritual might call to mind lofty, rigid practices accompanied by austere organ music, the gist of it is engaging in something that’s “intentional, repeatable, and out of the ordinary of life by design,” as Eric Liu of Citizen University put it at a working session on the power of ritual. Collective ritual can provide the kind of nourishing shared experience that brings people together across lines of difference to explore big questions and make meaning together. “We can’t solve the problem of loneliness with just more self-care,” Lennon Flowers said at the same working session. “We need connecting and community.” Collective ritual can be a tool for deep connection. “It’s also a way to escape the day-to-day churn and the mundane,” Lennon added, “and to say and do things that we might otherwise be self-conscious about.”


So what does this mean? In settings where we see opportunities to strengthen connection, we should experiment with collective rituals, bringing a new kind of structure and encouragement to go deeper than we do in our day-to-day encounters.

8. Attend to the inner work, too. Fostering connection, bridging, and belonging may sound entirely relational. Yet it’s also crucial to look inward, to connect with oneself. Part of this, according to Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is giving ourselves permission to feel. “Our emotions are a big part—maybe the biggest part—of what makes us human,” he writes. “And yet we go through life trying hard to pretend otherwise.” The ability to notice, label, express, and work through our emotions; these are learnable skills. All the better if the communities we’re a part of—our schools, campuses, and workplaces—reinforce them. Alongside intrapersonal skills, we need to create space for asking ourselves searching questions, for being self-aware about our biases. As Parker Palmer artfully put it in the track capstone conversation, “Do I have a democratic space within my heart to create legitimate, serious, hospitable, democratic spaces outside my heart?”


So what does this mean? We need to carve out the time and draw on the tools that enable sustained self-reflection, seeing this inner work as critical to how we show up with others.

9. Make room for joy and rest. The work of building a culture of connection, bridging, and belonging is, indeed, serious business that must be pursued with abiding commitment. That doesn’t mean it can’t be joyful. As Steven Olikara explains, another hallmark of jazz is improvisation, riffing on each other’s ideas, and in doing so “reinventing what you just heard into a new transcendent idea.” In her closing remarks at the capstone conversation, Krista Tippett also invoked the importance of joy and beauty as part of the journey. And then she added, “If the road is long, if the work is long, then this American virtue of exhaustion as a badge of honor has to end. Resting and getting restored and knowing what fills us up with joy is not optional, it’s not an indulgence.” Wise words as we head into the final weeks of this extraordinarily difficult and exhausting year.


So what does this mean? It may sound counterintuitive, but we need to schedule and protect downtime—to be unproductive, to let the mind wander, to stumble upon joy and beauty.

If these themes piqued your interest and you want to go deeper, check out the links below to the articles and conversations that were part of this collective project to envision the Relational Era. Wishing you a restorative, reflective, and connection-filled end to 2020 as we rest up for the hard work—and more hopeful days—ahead.

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More about our Build It Back Better partnership with NationSwell The Build It Back Better initiative focused on envisioning ways to move America forward in the context of the “dual pandemics” of COVID-19 and ongoing racial injustice. When confronting disasters, resilience experts seek not just to repair the damage but to “build back better” – converting a crisis into a reckoning and a reimagining. History suggests that in the wake of catastrophe, radical change is possible, but it’s not inevitably positive. In this moment of upheaval, NationSwell sought to surface bold ideas for addressing some of the big challenges of the day. Einhorn Collaborative helped curate a track exploring how to build a culture of connection, bridging, and belonging. The track included nine articles, two large public conversations, and five working group sessions. Articles:

Public conversations:

Working groups:

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative's Building strategy. You can learn more about our work in Building here and more about Jon here.