How can I see, hear, and value others?

According to Brené Brown, connection is “the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.” This energy is the foundation of purpose and meaning in our lives. Brené believes that connection is why we are here, and that the medicine both individuals and the world needs is more meaningful connection.

In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené published her most comprehensive version of her “Theory of Meaningful Connection.” Within this theory, she demonstrates how we can take the lofty ideas of connection and transform them into a practice that we can integrate – she gives us a roadmap to become people with the capacity for care and the skills to see, hear, and value people. She does this by explaining concepts of near and far enemies, defining grounded confidence, the courage to walk alongside, and story stewardship.

Maps for Inner & Outer Landscapes

“An interpretation of the universe remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; the mind as well as matter.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The beginning of meaningful connections is meaningful connection with ourselves; in order to show up in our relationships authentically and not performatively, we have to understand who our authentic self is. Brené writes, “The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal. To form meaningful connections with others, we must first connect with ourselves, but to do either, we must first establish a common understanding of the language of emotion and human experience.” Emotions are the data our systems send us about what we are experiencing. Having the language to understand our emotions is how we make sense of our experiences. Atlas of the Heart offers definitions of eighty-seven emotions, teaching us what we are feeling and how to navigate our rich inner landscapes.

Near & Far Enemies

Connecting with ourselves and others requires understanding which emotions and experiences serve connection and which ones serve disconnection. The concepts of near and far enemies allows us to discern this. Chris Germer writes, “Near enemies are states that appear similar to the desired quality but actually undermine it. Far enemies are the opposite of what we are trying to achieve… For example, a near enemy of compassion is pity and a far enemy is cruelty.” A near enemy is often more problematic than a far enemy, because they stop us from showing up how we want to in ways that are often overlooked. Brené writes:

On the surface, the near enemies of emotions or experiences might look and even feel like connection, but ultimately, they drive us to be disconnected from ourselves and from each other. Without awareness, near enemies become the practices that fuel separation, rather than practices that reinforce the inextricable connection of all people.

When we have the awareness to understand our emotions, we can cultivate the ones that drive connection and acknowledge the ones that get in the way, especially the near enemies that are often easier to overlook. In doing so we can create realities where we are more connected to ourselves and others. Having the language to understand our emotions is foundational to every aspect of Brené’s Theory of Meaningful Connection. In other words, practicing grounded confidence, the courage to walk alongside, and practicing story stewardship all require knowing and applying the language of human experience and emotion; the act of properly naming our experience is important.

Summarizing Brené Brown’s Theory of Meaningful Connection

Grounded Confidence

“I’ve come to believe that our capacity to reach beyond ourselves is dependent on how fully we are planted in our bodies in all their flaws and their grace.” Krista Tippett

The first skill to cultivate in the practice of meaningful connection is grounded confidence – the ability to connect with yourself and bring this presence to all of your interactions. According to Brené, grounded confidence is:

  • Knowing and applying the language of human experience and emotion
  • Practicing courage
  • Rumbling with vulnerability
  • Staying curious
  • Practicing humility
  • Committing to mastery and practice

In her previous work, Brené details what she means by courage, rumbling, and vulnerability. The etymology of courage shows the lineage of its meaning, connecting the concept to ‘heart.’ Practicing courage means living in a way that aligns your values and your actions. Rumbling with vulnerability is about holding the tension as you choose courage over comfort. Staying curious means consciously choosing to cultivate beginners mind, to ask questions, and to continue learning. Humility is the ability to be humble, be ground – you can take accountability for your actions and learn from your mistakes. Committing to mastery and practice is being devoted to the rhythm of growth (the ebb and flow) and recognize this work is a process.

“Developing grounded confidence is driven by a commitment to learning and improving. Its near enemy is knowing and proving.” Brené Brown

The Courage to Walk Alongside

“We want to be part of something – to experience real connection with others – but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power.” Brené Brown

The second element of Brené’s Theory of Meaningful Connection is practicing the courage to walk alongside. This element addresses the skills necessary to attend to the space between us in ways that are respectful and supportive. According to Brené, practicing the courage to walk alongside is:

  • Knowing and applying the language of human experience and emotion
  • Committing to be other-focused
  • Practicing compassion
  • Practicing empathy
  • Practicing non-judging
  • Sharing “power with” and “power to”
  • Being relational
  • Setting and respecting boundaries

Again, having a literacy of emotions and being able to describe your experience is foundational for meaningful connection. Committing to be other-focused is all about choosing to really listen to people, to step into care, to look through a lens of attending to others. Brené defines empathy as a tool of compassion and an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and reflect that understanding. We have to be able to be present with pain to empathize. Compassion is a daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we can treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness. Non-judgement is our ability to be open to possibilities and suspending the creation of opinions and conclusions, another skill we can practice.

Brené writes, “The near enemy of walking alongside is controlling the path.” Additionally, Anne Lamott writes, “Help is the sunny side of control.” It is not our work to control how other people behave. In fact, it gets in the way of connection. The Just Associates say “power with is: based on mutual support, solidarity, collaboration and recognition and respect for differences.” Additionally, “power to is: based on the belief that each individual has the power to make a difference.Practicing these forms of power is respectful and acknowledges the rich inner life and value of each individual.

Being relational is being attuned with the way things are connected. We can walk alongside others when we recognize that no one is an island and that we exist in connection with all of creation. We are relational when we make the conscious choice to attend to the ways we are connected. Setting and respecting boundaries is how we meet our needs and the needs of others; boundaries are the mechanism that allows us to be as we are and allows others to be as they truly are. Practicing the courage to walk alongside is all about respect – respecting the ways we are in relationship and the experience of others.

Story Stewardship

The third element of Brené’s Theory of Meaningful Connection is story stewardship. Stewardship is the job of supervising or taking care of something. In relationships, we are charged with taking good care of our stories and the stories people trust us with. This piece of Brené’s theory address the fact that our stories are how we understand ourselves, each other, and our world. Story stewardships is respecting the value of story and realizing that the only way to understand what someone is experiencing is to listen to what they tell you. Brené outlines story stewardship as:

  • Knowing and applying the language of human experience and emotion
  • Rumbling with story – listening, discovering, and staying curious
  • Building narrative trust – believing, acknowledging, and affirming.

Brené writes:

Story stewardship means honoring the sacred nature of story – the ones we share and the ones we hear – and knowing that we’ve been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care. We are good stewards of the stories we tell by trusting them to people who have earned the right to hear them, and telling them only when we’re ready. We are good stewards of the stories we hear by listening, being curious, affirming, and believing people when they tell us how they experienced something.

Story stewardship is the practice of listening, trusting, and connecting. We communicate to others that they are seen when we empathize with their experience. They are heard when we listen to what they say. They are valued when we cherish our connection.

Being Able to See, Hear, & Value

You become someone capable of care and connection when you are fully planted in yourself (grounded confidence), when you can hold space for others (practice the courage to walk alongside), and when you take really good care of people’s stories (story stewardship). If these ideas resonated with you and you want to learn more about the language of human emotion, experience, and connection read Brené’s books, especially Atlas of the Heart.

“We are connected. What we need to do is become aware of it, to live it, to express it.” john powell