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Want to save the world? Start with building belonging

This month at All Hands In we are exploring the theme of Belonging. When I began learning about belonging, I couldn’t believe how much overlap there was with soft skills. I view belonging as any connection–to ourselves, others and environments–where we feel seen, heard and valued in our authenticity. This may sound obvious but cultivating belonging is something that our culture is in dire need of. How many spaces, places and people do you have in your life where you feel confident that your authenticity will be met with welcomed appreciation? Most of us have less than three places or people that make us feel this way.


Studies from researchers of emotion say that our brains are hardwired for connection. Throughout evolution, belonging has served as a major mechanism for helping us survive, develop, innovate and adapt. Sociologists view belonging as a critical component in shaping how we view not just others, but also ourselves. Studies have overwhelmingly found that humans who experience belonging are more emotionally regulated, confident, stress-resilient and more able to fend off depression. People who have multiple sources of belonging tend to have higher self-worth, feel less alone and connect with more purpose and meaning in their lives.


So if belonging is so critical to our overall happiness, growth and development, why is it in such short supply and how can we create more of it?


In order to understand where it’s lacking, let’s talk about what destroys belonging and what builds it. Research shows that the number one behavior or emotion that erodes belonging is shame. Look at any culture where shame is prominent and you will see low levels of connection. Conversely, when we see cultures that foster belonging, we tend to notice more empathy, trust, authenticity, vulnerability, communication and emotional intelligence. Research is now pointing out that this is not coincidental.


Let’s use the corporate world as an example. In 2005, many people in the financial industry with ties to mortgage lending knew that the rate of growth was unsustainable. Some people who had the courage to speak up found themselves shamed and even replaced. Fear dictated corporate culture and those climbing up the ladder quickly learned that it was safer to “fit in” rather than have the audacity to point out the obvious truth. As a result of financial cultures built on shame, secrecy and disconnection, the Great Recession of 2008 became the greatest economic collapse and housing crisis since the 1930s. Would things have gone differently if big bank culture had fostered authentic belonging and prized courage as much as cash flow? We can only speculate but odds are, yes.


One of the reasons I look for belonging when working in collaborative environments is because it gives me a clear picture of a group’s culture. Companies who view connection and belonging as weak or too sensitive are not going to be able to practice the vulnerability necessary to collaborate with each other effectively. Conversely, teams who do prioritize belonging tend to exercise courage, support and adapt more successfully when facing difficult obstacles or challenges (like a housing market collapse).


It’s fair to say that given our current culture, most of us feel deprived of authentic belonging. What I find heartbreaking, frightening and interesting about this is that we tend to either cave to the social pressure to assimilate or we completely isolate. This can attract bullying, gossip or other unwanted behavior. When we seek belonging but instead encounter the choice to fit in or be ostracized, most of us understandably go with fitting in.


The irony of fitting in is that this choice will only ever take us in the opposite direction of belonging. Authenticity, in all its uniqueness, goes against the required conformity of assimilating, as it goes against a general consensus. When forced to fit in over finding real belonging, we actively distance ourselves from our authentic selves in order to avoid conflict and incurring shame or rejection. This may also bring about feelings of self-loathing, insecurity, shame, imposter syndrome and a whole host of other nasty mind gremlins.


How can we start building greater belonging and create spaces where our authentic selves feel seen, heard and valued? Enter soft skills. When we practice soft skills like empathy, vulnerability, compassion, communication, awareness and courage, we actively invite others to connect with us. Essentially, we begin behaving in ways that say, “I see your humanity.” When belonging is strong, we truly see each other and honor our natures and differences, including our politics, religion, race, gender, lifestyle, nationality and pizza preference.


Right now, we are living through a period of deep polarization, which is absolutely predicated by cultures of fitting in. Shame is riding high, empathy is on life support and compassion and grace feel like lofty goals compared to the eternal dumpster fire of the 2020s. But what if belonging could still be nurtured and shared? I admit, I’m still hopeful that we can make this happen.


Awareness is one of the key soft skills needed if we want to cultivate belonging in our culture. Again, we can start by discerning between which of our environments feel like authentic belonging and which feel like fitting in. Pay attention to how you show up in these different spaces. How do you feel after spending time in each of them? Are you excited or reluctant to return? Why?


When we bring awareness to which relationships feel like belonging vs fitting in, we start to get a clearer picture of the people and places we can go to–or should avoid–when we need connection. This gives us agency because we have a choice to make. We can choose to stay and conform or we can choose to walk away and create true belonging. Why hustle for acceptance when we can spare ourselves the pain and shame of cultures that will never truly embrace us?


A third choice also exists. We can aim to shift culture by actively nurturing belonging wherever we are. You may ask, how can you build belonging when you’re only one person? The answer is in small but highly effective ways.


When I need to build belonging, I turn to three soft skills that never fail to help me: empathy, communication and courage. Of course, there are many more that come into play but these are my essentials.


Empathy is probably the most helpful tool when building belonging. When we share an empathetic moment with someone, we tap into the emotional experience they are having. This is not about feeling another’s feelings but rather identifying what emotions are coming up and being able to say, “Yes, I have felt that, too.” In these moments, an instant bond gets created because one person feels seen and heard and the other now has greater clarity and understanding. If we want to build more belonging, we must learn to practice empathy more often and see ourselves in those we feel disconnected from.


Communication is critical for belonging, as proven by human evolution. Before language developed into what it is today, pictures, sounds and gestures were used to help us share our experiences and the emotions connected to them. As we evolved and learned more skills, we gained the ability to pair communication with empathy, which helped us to foster belonging. Without communication, it is almost impossible to identify and share our emotions, which leaves us feeling alone and belonging seems like a far away thing.


Courage is the other tool I constantly reach for when trying to build belonging. Look, this shit is hard and I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m not perfect at it. Building belonging often means setting aside differences and seeing the humanity in people we seem to have nothing in common with. Building belonging is not an overnight task. It is an investment of time, energy and emotions. Often when I am doing this work, I want to run when things get challenging or when I encounter setbacks. Courage is the tool that allows me to stay persistent and get back in the arena to try again. The more courage we deploy, the greater our odds are for creating belonging.


Belonging may feel ethereal but the truth is that it’s an active practice of acceptance, love and compassion. When we are polarized and can only see each other’s otherness, we become the impediment to belonging. When we acknowledge and welcome each other's authenticity without making conditions or barriers, we build bonds of connection and belonging becomes possible. This is a very powerful thing.


Again, our culture feels very polarized right now, resulting in dehumanization on all sides. Building belonging in this environment may feel impossible but it isn’t. If each of us commits to small active practices of building belonging each day, the changes that come from this could be revolutionary.


So many of us are left outside of belonging and this costs all of us dearly. It may show up in the form of addictions, mass shootings, tumultuous politics, declining mental health and more. Changing the landscape of our culture cannot be solved with one solution or in one election cycle. This can feel daunting and hopeless. But when we look at the power belonging has on shifting culture, we start to see a very different picture of what is possible.


What does it look like when I put empathy, communication and courage into practice when fostering belonging?


  • I hold space for the other person and ask what they need from me to feel heard and seen.

  • I regulate my emotions when communicating and listen more than I talk.

  • I don't try to fix or solve.

  • I circle back and acknowledge when I come up short.

  • I use courage to step into vulnerability and share it with those who have earned it.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on what came up for you as you read about belonging this month. Feel free to reach out and share. It may just lead to a deeper connection and sense of belonging for us all.



Photo Credit: Howl & Rose


Kate Katz is the owner and founder of All Hands In, a soft skills development company. All Hands In specializes in soft skills development using play and puppetry. If you'd like to learn more about the work we do, please visit: www.allhandsinworkshops.com or email Kate at kate@allhandsinworkshops.com.


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Wonderful message, profound healing

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