Learning to grow together

Why we are not happier alone and why we are just becoming socially literate

It seems paradox: while neuroscientists are proving over and over again, how hard-wired our brains are for social interactions[1], while almost all longitudinal studies on heath related queries show that we live longest and most healthily if we are socially connected and while we believe, our kids are happiest when they play with other kids, more people than ever live alone in the West (in Germany 42% of households are single households, in the US 36%, UK 25%) and collaboration for many of us often seems to be more of a burden than a place of bounty.


We have become used to being independent and individualistic. The pandemic highlights and enforces that. Seemingly everything can be taken care of without actual human interaction: from the acquisition of food, to earning money, to physical fitness. But even if we leave the current situation and its constant threats out of the equation, being with others is risky. More often than not we choose safety over risk-taking, control over communion.


[1] check Gerald Hüther („Etwas mehr Hirn bitte“) on learning as a social phenomena and Daniel Goleman („Social Intelligence“) on how feelings depend on and are influenced by others 

I absolutely include myself in this. As an Integrative Coach and Prosocial Facilitator I am familiar with the sophisticated methods we use to help team members move towards each other and for communication to flow easier.  And sometimes they help! But often enough I see clients disengaging completely from work they originally liked, because of conflict and social disharmony. This is not an easy battle to win. Once we are emotionally triggered, our stress engine takes over, fuelled by rejections in the past and developmental trauma. And social rejection, as neuroscientists have shown us, leads to the same areas of our brains being stimulated as physical pain. Once our amygdala (our inner “alarm button”) marks a situation as stressful our willingness and our ability to interact socially drop dramatically. For a good reason - our nervous system is built that way. The frontal vagus nerve, allowing us to bond with others and to feel empathy for instance, was the last to develop and is the first to “shut off” because it is least important in surviving in a life-threatening situation, Polyvagal Theorists claim. 

And who am I to proclaim social peace when I´m struggling just the same? 


I live with my husband and my daughter and have not felt such a strong feeling of belonging I feel towards these two ever since we became a family five years ago. When I come back from work, I cannot wait to see them, and when I have news I cannot wait to share it with them. But I miss being alone sometimes and I find family life sometimes overwhelming. It is difficult to make all ends meet, to consider everyone´s needs and keep track of one´s own.

I lived alone for 13 years of my adult life. Switching continents or partners was my default as an independent woman and I never would have believed I would want to commit to one person so extensively, especially in an institutional kind of way (I´m very happy I did). We spent the first lockdown –e.g. eight weeks in total – in a flat in the countryside in a group of eight: loosely connected, like-minded people. We all professionally work with people, we played games, cuddled a lot and did Sharings every day. Still, I went mad. (I wrote about the beauty and the struggles of this experience in this article)


I know about the potential strength of groups and teams. I felt inspired when I learnt what evolutionary science now says about groups: in a nutshell, multilevel selection theory found out that altruistic groups are better off than selfish groups. Building on this insight, the Prosocial method fuses individual interests into collective interests, creating the conditions for a group to start behaving more like a single organism than a collection of individuals. In nature we find many such collaboration systems. 

But when it comes to most social interaction with our colleagues, our siblings, our friends I have the feeling we are beginners when it comes to being well in groups. As a species we have developed at an immense speed regarding technology. But we are lagging behind in our social and emotional skill-set and just beginning to crack a tough nut.


So, regarding my own difficulties and seeing the many social dramas and challenges my clients and humanity as a whole face, 


where should we begin?


How could we leverage more the benefits of social interaction and mitigate its current downsides and difficulties? Because surely it will continue to come in a package as long as we haven´t shifted to another level of consciousness and live in an individualistic society. You will not always want what I want. 


I suggest progress on three levels: 


1.) Emotional literacy

It is possible for us to practice becoming more aware of what is actually going on inside of us when we interact with other human beings. When we manage to allow for anger, grief, shame or fear to surface, without the story that supposedly produced them, we can start advocating our needs without creating more chaos. Of course, this can only happen once we include the whole human being in the work place instead of just an utopian and nonexistent version of humans behaving like machines blindly executing tasks. Frederic Laloux (“Reinventing organizations”) presented very convincing examples of how holistic, soulful and meaningful ways of collaborating can create impact and ROI and some organisations are starting to build on this idea by forming buddy groups, sharing circles and conflict care strategies. We need to start talking openly about our feelings before things escalate not just with our therapists, partners and best friends and we need to stop pretending things are fine when they are not. Clients often say things like “ok, but let´s not get too touchy, feely in the workshop”. My experience is that when feelings are addressed upfront in a group or “felt through” in a neat individual process – which takes about 5-10 minutes if you´re experienced[1] –, it speeds things up.


2.) We need to apply what we know about individual in groups

I mentioned evolutionary science regarding individuals in groups. On a more pragmatic level, recent work models like Holocracy, Sociocracy, Prosocial and Scruam point to similar basic principles for groups to work well: self-organization, a common purpose, inclusive and agile decision-making and conflict resolution strategies. I want to stress two prerequisites even more concrete and hopefully easy to apply that have proven to be pivotal for group success in two of the world´s most successful companies:


Smaller groups are better than bigger groups Amazon has the two-Pizza-philosophy: If two pizzas cannot feed a team it is too large. This has two reasons. 1.) The more people are involved, the more communication, bureaucracy and stir up happens – hence, all things that can slow processes down. 2.) Social Loafing: it seems that the more of us there are, the lazier we become because our contribution is not as visible (see the Ringelmann Effect).[2]


Members of a group need to feel psychologically safe 

Even if this seems insignificant to you at first glance – do not miss out on this one! Google, known for its capacity to establish algorithms, undertook a vast research trying to find the key prerequisites for thriving teams[3]. They looked at educational background, interests, gender balance, personality traits but found out (by coincidence!) that those groups worked together best, where members felt free to also share socially “risky” remarks without fear of being judged.


3.) Becoming aware of the fact, that we are not separate

Sounds like an empty esoteric phrase or hardly achievable? Well, we do not have to be spiritual seekers to believe in this. It becomes obvious enough when we consider, how others influence our mindset, our self-image but also our hormones, our neurotransmitters and our immune system[4]! The South African term “Ubuntu”, which literally means: “I am, because you are” makes a lot of sense then. If I harm you, I harm myself and if I celebrate myself, I celebrate all of mankind. And at this point I haven´t even mentioned our ecological interdependence and the fact that no part of what we consider “I/myself” which, incidentally doesn´t exist in some languages, prevails. No body cell for instance lives for more than 7 years. So how solid and separate can this “I” be? 


I don´t find it always easy, but let´s practice to be well while we´re with others. Are you with me?


[1] I recommend Vivian Dittmar´s technique of „Mindful Discharging“, see e.g. “Feelings. How to use them intelligently”.

[2] Professor Maximilien Ringelmann showed in his rope-pulling experiment, that when only one person is pulling on a rope they give 100% of their effort, however, as more people are added the individual effort goes down. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacobmorgan/2015/04/15/why-smaller-teams-are-better-than-larger-ones/?sh=16bce6621e68 (12.3.21)

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html (12.3.21)

[4] See e.g. https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/089055-000-A/die-macht-der-sanften-beruehrung/(15.3.21) on how our immune system is influenced by others.