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  • Palma Joy Strand

The Journey from Head to Heart


At Civity we talk about the power of relationships to make it possible for different people to “see” others and care about their well-being. Relationships – especially relationships between people with different social identities – enable communities to face tough challenges together rather than splintering apart.


To create and strengthen relationships that bridge our differences, we need to journey from our heads to our hearts. When we stay up in our heads, we focus on where another person is from, what they think, how they look. We categorize and “one-dimensionalize” them. It’s a short step to dismissing them – to saying they don’t matter.


When we move to our hearts, as we do when we tell another person our story and listen to theirs, we open the door to exploring others’ life experiences. In “heart” mode, we are able to allow the infinity of others’ life experiences to call to our own experiences and our own infinity. The relationship thread that’s created connects us in our common humanity.


The head-to-heart journey isn’t a no-brainer. It can feel a little “off” to think about being “in relationship” with fellow community members or work colleagues. We tend to limit personal relationship building to the realm of friends and family.


When we do think in terms of relationships in the public sphere or in workplaces, the connotations aren’t always positive. Relationships in politics may conjure the unwelcome specter of smoke-filled rooms and machine politics. Personal relationships in workplaces can evoke images of nepotism and favoritism. As a result, we’ve been conditioned to lead with our heads and leave our hearts behind.


And yet.


In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman observes, “our biology is built to thirst for connection because it is linked to our most basic survival needs.” Social care and cooperation have enabled homo sapiens to adapt to an extreme range of environments, and relational connection lies at the root of that capacity.


Modern psychology has shown over and over again that, as members of a social species with relational connection essential to survival, we are acutely sensitive to even subtle interactions with other people. Micro-interactions of all sorts send constant messages of recognition, belonging, exclusion, status, and more. Even when relationships are fleeting, they still have an effect, because they are still relationships.


If other people are more than walking and talking cardboard cutouts – which they are! – then our encounters with them are relational. This is true even with people we brush by on the street or sit next to at a staff meeting. The question becomes what kind of relational will these interactions be.


Most of us have experienced having a brief conversation with someone we just met and may never see again, and that interaction (relationship) stays with us because it felt “real.” Last weekend, my husband and I attended a Mystics WNBA game in Washington DC. Going to basketball games isn’t my regular scene, and I felt a little out of place. But waiting in line to get into the arena, we struck up a conversation with the woman behind us. It turned out that she was the girlfriend of one of the players and a frequent attendee. As someone who wasn’t a regular at the games, those few minutes of friendly exchange made me feel more as if I belonged.


This kind of heart-based interaction isn’t deep, but it does have the quality of “I see you” respect and an openness to the kind of empathy that grows from exploring someone else’s experience. This type of relationship is personal in the sense that it’s genuine and authentic: It’s a “civity relationship.”


What we’ve found in doing Civity workshops – which give people strategies for and practice in being intentionally relational in contexts that are more casual and/or arms-length than friends and family – is that civity eases the trip from head to heart.


First and foremost, civity gives people permission to be relational. It turns out that a lot of us have that Social instinct: We want to connect with others even in the everyday spaces we inhabit, but we are inhibited by not having language or explicit support – or boundaries – for doing so. Civity serves as a kind of passport or visa that gives us the authority to travel into relational territory.


Perhaps just as important, civity offers a road map. Civity relationships are rooted in heart, while at the same time they are not deep and not intimate. If you think of relationships as being like yarn, civity relationships aren’t heavy and thick (we’re not talking BFF here!). But they are important: An intricate web of civity relationships binds a community together.


These slender threads may be hardest to spin when they connect people from different social groups, and yet these are also the most essential in terms of a community being able to pull together. And where hearts connect, heads follow.

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