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Tilling the Soil for Human Connection

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

with Arne Carlsen, Sally Maitlis and Kristina Workman

Finally it is spring! Spring reminds us that we need to ready the soil for new plants to grow. Tilling breaks up the dirt, aerates the soil and can remove elements that could damage the new life in plants. Tilling the soil prepares the way for heartier and healthier plants.

Tilling the soil is an apt metaphor for preparing to connect. We believe this form of preparation can be equally important for fostering healthy human connections, especially in this time of social distancing during COVID-19 when we need to be more deliberate and mindful about connecting with others. Now is a fitting time to consider how to “ready” for connection. Our bet is that if we are skillful about preparing for connection, we are more likely to build higher quality connections with others, despite the constraints of physical distance. We offer three areas to focus on when preparing for connection, each providing a different leverage point for making connections of higher quality.

Preparing Ourselves

Before we enter a connection with another there are all kinds of ways we can ready our minds and hearts in ways that foster high quality connecting.

  1. Be present. Remove distractions. Be mindful. Gauge our emotional state and capacity to determine if we can make ourselves available to others and focus on how they are feeling. Try to bring our full selves into the moment in order to be ready for what is likely to unfold in the connection. Beware of multi-tasking or engaging in other activities simultaneously that might pull us away from fully experiencing the person we are connecting with. Signal attention - “I am here for you now.”

  2. Know ourselves. Reflect on our own relational strengths and play to them. Feel confident about what we have to offer others. Whether outgoing and quick to reach out to others, or more reserved with a preference for listening and letting the other take the lead, there are so many ways to engage and be there for others. Also, recognize our less developed relational skills. Not naturally patient, adaptable, supportive, or appreciative? We can intentionally practice or seek other ways to develop these qualities.

  3. Prime caring. Activate our prosocial motivation (Batson, 1987) by fostering positive interpersonal emotions or engaging in positive mental time traveling (Quoidbach et al., 2010). For example, we could activate feelings of gratitude by remembering what another person (even a stranger) has contributed to us, or to the greater good. Or we could dwell on a past interaction with the person in which we enjoyed their company. In the current pandemic, we could intentionally call up the forethought that the person loading groceries into our car is an essential worker putting themselves at risk in order to keep us safe. Our guess is that this form of interpersonal priming paves the way for a higher quality connection than we would create without these thoughts.

  4. Do our homework. Find out about the other person. Try to learn about their interests, needs and wants, their strengths. Prime ourselves to appreciate and be genuinely curious about the other person. For example, knowing whether the other person is lonely or is grieving prompts a different starting point and conversational content.

  5. Be curious, especially if we already know the other. Choose to hold a position of curiosity about what the other person is experiencing, wants and needs. If we are meeting after a difficult prior exchange or relationship rupture, we can reflect on what happened previously and remind ourselves that the other person will likely have seen the situation differently from us. Notice the emotions evoked in ourselves and try to remember when we have felt this way before. Bring curiosity to try to understand why the incident or experience has impacted us, including what it raises or challenges about our identity.

Preparing Others

  1. If possible, convey intentions prior to the interaction. Just as it is helpful to know another’s needs before we interact, it can also be helpful if we have conveyed to the other person what our intentions or needs are. Signaling our intentions or desires gives the other person a chance to ready themselves, reducing their possible anxieties or concerns about meeting or interaction.

  2. Set boundaries. When planning to meet with another, it is helpful to indicate how much time we want to allocate for the conversation. In some cases, it may also be valuable to clarify the intended focus of discussion. Although setting temporal and other boundaries can seem constraining, boundaries contain and create a sense of safety by setting limits. They also signal our intentions to be fully present and dedicated to the interaction. If more time or a different conversation is needed, it is easy to suggest meeting again.

  3. Invite mutuality. Although a meeting may be set up at our suggestion, we still seek the mutuality of engagement that is a signature feature of a high quality connection. This means we should invite the other fully into the interaction, signaling our openness to their intentions, views and concerns. This allows them, in turn, to ready themselves to take a lead in shaping and directing the interaction.

Preparing the Situation

  1. Create an inviting space. Ideally meet in person to maximize richness of cues and reduce barriers – enabling an embodied togetherness that may encourage higher quality connecting. Move away from a desk or any physical barriers. Perhaps even meet in a neutral space to create a more egalitarian footing. If appropriate, meet somewhere informal, or even walk and talk – allowing the conversation to unfold in a warmer, more open context. We may find that meeting in a place of calm or beauty enables us to connect and be together in moments of silence. In some cases, it is particularly important to create conditions for psychological safety, ensuring the conversation can be confidential and unfold without interruption.

  2. Have materials on hand. Connecting can sometimes require material enhancements to make the interaction go smoothly and feel enlivening. This might include colored markers and blank paper, inviting co-sketching, pictures or other symbolic objects that transcend words and evoke insight. Material help could also include overviews or agendas that provide transparency about the likely or preferred flow of the conversation. Tissues can also be valuable in readiness for expressions of distress.

  3. Settle technology issues. Ensure we are using a technology familiar to all interacting parties, so that all are on a technologically equal footing and have an ease of connection. As far as possible, ensure there is good audio quality – enabling each participant to be heard without extra effort.

The Dangers of Over-tilling

Just as farmers can over-till and damage their crops, there are downsides to over-preparing for connection. Quality human connecting depends on interpersonal sensitivity (Shotter and Katz, 1999) and responsive attunement (Beebe and Lachmann, 1988) to the changing conditions of another person. Over-preparing that makes us rigid as opposed to flexible and adaptable can harm connection. If preparing puts us on “high alert” and “in our heads” as opposed to in a more fully embodied place of being, we are likely to become more closed and less vulnerable which could limit possibilities for connecting. Finally, if we over-prepare for connection in a way that distances us from our more authentic or genuine ways of interacting with another person, this too, could be an impediment to connection.

Human interactions are, by definition, co-created, and so it is impossible to fully plan our way to a high-quality connection. In addition, and regardless of our efforts to prepare, there will inevitably be barriers and asymmetries that prevent the enlivening mutuality we seek. By tilling the soil, however, we greatly increase the chance that the seeds that we plant for connection will flourish in our interactions.


BATSON, CD. 1987. Prosocial motivation: Is it ever truly altruistic? Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 20:65–122

BEEBE, B. & LACHMANN, F. M. 1988. Mother-Infant mutual Influence and precursors of psychic structure. In: GOLDBERG, A. (ed.) Progress in self psychology, Vol. 3. Frontiers in self psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

QUOIDBACH, J., BERRY, E. V., HANSENNE, M. & MIKOLAJCZAK, M. 2010. Positive emotion regulation and well-being: Comparing the impact of eight savoring and dampening strategies. Personality and individual differences, 49, 368-373.

SHOTTER, J. & KATZ, A. M. 1999. Living moments in dialogical exchanges. Human Systems, 9, 81-94.

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