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13 Steps to Build a Meaningful Human Connection With Anyone by Sean Stephenson

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Summary: Leaders like the Dalai Lama, President Bill Clinton, Sir Richard Branson, and Sean Stephenson know how to foster human connection. Read 13 strategies here.

Many believe that only a lucky few are born with the ability to connect with anyone — but that’s actually not the case.

All of us have the ability to develop a profound human connection with the people we meet. More likely than not, you already have several precious relationships in your life.

That’s because we’re all innately social creatures, hard-wired to seek out a community. In fact, our drive for human connection is so powerful that multiple studies have shown that feeling lonely and isolated is more detrimental to our health than smoking or obesity.

The longest-running study in the world, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has shown over the span of 80 years that a strong sense of community is the most significant factor in living a longer, happier life. And Dr. Matthew Lieberman of UCLA showed that social pain is interpreted by the brain the same as physical pain. Our bodies react in the same way.

So why is a strong sense of human connection, something so natural and vital, so difficult for us to create? Why do so many of us feel so lonely?

For starters, some of us are confused about what connection actually means. True connection isn’t what happens when your Bluetooth earbuds recognize your computer. That is communication, says world-renowned speaker Sean Stephenson in this episode of the Mindvalley Podcast with Vishen.

He says:

Connection is not an exchange of information. Connection is an exchange of humanity. It’s an exchange of emotion.

And Sean, more than anyone, knows what it takes to connect with people. By his teens, he had already broken 300 bones in his body due to a rare genetic disease called Brittle Bone disease. He made a promise early on to take up “the responsibility to connect with humanity” by trying to “meet people and get to know their lives.”

That attitude of his has put him on the same stage as the Dalai Lama, President Bill Clinton, and Sir Richard Branson. It’s also saved another person’s life.

Sean tells this transformational story in the podcast, but through it, he learned,

Time to you is not time to everybody else. What might just be a passing moment to you could save somebody else’s life.

It’s no surprise that human connection can have such a huge effect. After all, think about someone who had a massive impact on your life — did you like them because they were articulate? Because they had the best resume? Because they smelled nice?

No, most likely it was because you felt they cared about you. As Sean points out,

Thats when connection takes place: the moment we feel that somebody cares about us, we’re open to learning from them.

The other reason we’re not able to connect with others is that, frankly, a lot of us carry some serious baggage that interferes with us caring about those we meet. We carry our shyness, our cynicism, our competitiveness, and our pride with us.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As Sean spent time with some of the most charismatic and influential leaders in the world, he discovered 13 key strategies you can use to connect with just about everyone.

charismatic people

4 Ways to Gain Presidential Charisma

Many people disagree with the policies of the first person on our list but almost everybody who has come into contact with him says he’s charming. When Sean was working with President Bill Clinton, he noticed that even people with a vendetta against the man would leave with a smile on their faces after a meeting.

These are the 4 strategies President Clinton used to inspire a sense of camaraderie:

1. Know names and use them

Here’s a quick insight: Everybody wants to be known. So when you meet someone, ask for their name, repeat it back, remember it, and then use it in conversation.

This is exactly what Clinton does, and it works wonders. Remembering and using someone’s name is one of the smallest acts that speak the loudest.

Neuroscientists have even named a phenomenon after the power of hearing our names spoken. The “Cocktail Party” Effect, revealed in a 2006 study, shows that we can hear our name even in a room full of crowded people and loud voices. Another study shows that the brain recognizes our names as part of our core identity.

This means that when you’re remembering someone’s name, you’re not remembering a word; you’re remembering them.

2. Be with the person you’re with

Have you ever felt someone’s attention on another person as you were speaking to them? Feels pretty awful, right?

It’s important to be with the person you’re with. When you’re talking with someone and your eyes are not on them but the person you consider “the most important person in the room,” you’re sending out the energy that you don’t care about or value the person right in front of you. The truth is that the most important person in the room is the one right in front of you.

That’s why President Clinton gives whoever he’s talking to 100% of his focus. When you make people feel seen, you end up having more engaging conversations and more opportunities to deeply connect.

a group of friends

3. Ask others for their opinions

Another powerful thing President Clinton did. Most people wouldn’t blame the President for saying that he needed to discuss important matters with someone else. But imagine if you had the leader of the free world leaning into you to hear your opinion on something that matters to you — and then he thanks you for sharing. How would that make you feel?

Probably pretty good, right? That’s because we’ve all got opinions and wisdom to share, but it’s rare that someone gives us the opportunity to offer those fruits.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to agree with their opinions, but asking for someone’s opinions shows that you think what they’ve got to say is valuable. You’re letting them know you care what they have to say. And doesn’t everybody want to be heard? And when you open yourself up to what they have to say, most likely they’ll be more open to whatever you have to say.

4. Physical touch shows you’re a warm person

While this strategy requires sensitivity and discretion, physical touch can be extremely effective for establishing a connection. Nonverbal cues matter. In fact, Dr. Albert Mehrabian conducted several studies and found that only 7% of the information we take in about another person is through words. About 38% is through vocal elements like tone, and 55% is through nonverbal elements such as body language.

Light physical contact at just the right moment actually increases tips for restaurant servers, persuades subjects to share personal information, inspires individuals to help look for lost objects, and encourages people to sign petitions.

The customers at a restaurant might not even have noticed that their server touched them on the shoulder, but their body would have immediately reacted by increasing dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin (the “happy brain” chemicals) and decreasing cortisol levels (the stress hormones). A simple touch can convey the fact that you’re a warm person and increase their connection with you.

3 Tips on Human Connection From the Dalai Lama

Sean met the Dalai Lama at an event where both of them were speakers. While the Dalai Lama has spoken about compassion and connection often, Sean also learned by observing how the spiritual leader interacted with the people around him.

Here’s what he gathered:

5. Smile with your entire body

Again, body language is important! And that includes facial expressions. Sean noticed the Dalai Lama that the spiritual leader had a smile that was able to “melt an angry soldier’s heart.” By his mere presence, he can bring the people in the room closer together.

How does he do this? By smiling with his entire body. Because it’s not just about the lips; it’s about the eyes, too.

And because we all have mirror neurons (the same neurons that cause you to yawn when you see another person yawn), other people will be much more likely to smile back at you.

That has the effect of inspiring a sense of human connection in almost everyone who sees you.


6. Be playfully wise

We’d probably assume that the Dalai Lama is wise — but did you know that he’s playful as well?

It’s this combination that really seems to have an effect on people. It’s astonishing when you realize that the Dalai Lama was exiled from his own land and is constantly under threat, but yet he still manages to be both wise and joyful at the same time.

You might think, “Well, I’m not the Dalai Lama, so what wisdom could I possibly have to share?”

The answer is, “A lot.” According to Sean:

Wisdom is being in touch with your intuition, listening to yourself, being able to share valuable advice with someone regardless of whether they take it or not. That’s the neat thing about advice. It doesn’t have to be taken but it can be shared.

There are insights that you bring to the table because of your particular experiences and unique perspective. Sometimes your insights might be spot on, profound, helpful. Other times they might not be welcome. All of that is okay.

7. Hit pause and listen

How often do you listen, like really, really listen? How often do you pause and take the time to think about what the other person is trying to say instead of trying to think of something to say?

Sean suggests that listening doesn’t just happen when we stop speaking,

Listening takes place when you put your life on pause.

People tend to treat conversation as if it’s a competitive sport, trying to one-up the other person, “win” the debate, or display what they know.

But conversations aren’t one-man performances. And when we compete, we can’t connect.

By putting our thoughts on hold for the other person, we create more space for them to open up with us. It can be hard to break the habit of talking more than we listen, but you can take a page from Marie Forleo’s book and use the I.A.P., or the Intentional Awkward Pause.

This is how the I.A.P. works: Instead of reacting to what the other person says right after they tell you something, pause for 3 seconds. More often than not, the other person will have more to say. This means you can a) get to know them better and b) know for certain that you didn’t unintentionally cut them off.

two old men sitting on a bench

3 Strategies From One of the Most Likeable Billionaires Out There

Richard Branson has a reputation for being successful, interesting, and eccentric — on top of being one of the most likable guys out there. When Sean dined with him, he observed some of the qualities that really made the founder of Virgin stand out.

8. Smooth voices are appealing

It might sound silly to say “check your voice,” but your voice actually does affect other people’s perceptions of you quite a bit. Studies show that vocal traits, such as pitch, texture, and modulation, influence who people consider likable, dominant, and competent.

In a study conducted by Dr. Cara Tigue and her colleagues, subjects were asked to vote for higher or lower-pitched versions of previous American Presidents. The lower-pitched versions were chosen 69% of the time. That’s quite the difference.

A voice that’s lower and smoother is more likely to convince us that the owner is calm and competent enough to be a leader. Nobody wants a voice that sounds frantic and flustered. But knowing someone who can control their own energy is attractive. And, as Sean says, the person who’s able to control their energy the best is the most powerful person in the room.

9. Ask creative questions

We all know that first impressions matter (science confirms this) so how do we make a good one?

Here’s a tip: Get out of the weeds of weather and small talk. Get to know them by asking questions. And don’t just ask the “nice, safe” questions. “What do you do?” doesn’t cut it. You’ve probably answered that question a million and one times and so have they.

Richard Branson makes a point to ask the people he meets creative questions. He assumes that everybody around him has something interesting to say and prompts them to share with questions like:

  • “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?”
  • Or, “What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do because it could change your life, but you were too scared to start?”
  • Or you could use one of Vishen’s favorite questions: “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”

More creative questions engage the other person, help you learn more about them, and ultimately lead to better conversations and connections.

10. Stay humble

Richard Branson might own his own island but he also knows the value of humility. Often considered one of the more humble entrepreneurs, Sean learned through his observations of Branson that there’s a distinct difference between confidence and humility.

The two are often mistaken for each other but here’s how you can tell the difference: A confident person will try to improve the relationship; an arrogant person will try to prove themselves. Value your connection to the other person more than being right or important.

Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever celebrate yourself. Of course, you should!

A great way to do that is just to give people notice or ask for permission: “Hey, I just won an award. Could I brag to you about it?”

Usually, people will be more than happy to hear how you’ve succeeded and they’ll offer you cheers of support.

3 Speaking Lessons From a World-Renowned Speaker

3 Speaking Lessons From a World-Renowned Speaker

These last lessons are inspired by Sean’s own experiences.

11. Think of human connections as an intense game of ping pong

As we said earlier, “conversation” doesn’t mean “monologue” or “one-man performance.” Both sides have to participate equally in answering questions, asking questions, and listening.

In order to connect, you have to share and ask for others to share. It’s easy to either dominate or disappear from the conversation. The more difficult thing is to stay engaged. Stay mindful of whether you both have been able to talk about 50% of the time. Use some of the other tips above, like hit pause and listen or ask creative questions, to generate dialogue with the person you’re talking to.

12. Be generous with praise

We’re serious here. Praise should flow out of you. After all, there’s no tax or cost for praising another individual. It’s no good to keep ourselves from praising others, either, because we think it will go to their heads or that somehow it detracts from your own greatness. Celebrating someone else isn’t just a booster for them; it’s also a booster for you. So praise, and praise publicly.

After all, it’s one of the most effective, delightful things we can do.

In fact, praise is so powerful that people stay longer at companies and work harder when they feel appreciated for who they are at their workplace. This is something we take to heart at Mindvalley. That’s why during our weekly meetings, we praise each other in front of the entire team.

13. Create a space for vulnerability

There’s nothing more awkward than inauthentic, stilted conversations. Having the courage to be vulnerable and allowing space for the other person to be vulnerable can break through this ice. It helps the conversation flow naturally.

Because now, more than ever, we want to feel something more real than the too-perfect square pictures on Instagram. It’s a relief when we see someone break out of the social media mold and be honest. It reminds us that we’re all just human. So share your trials and tribulations. Be honest if you’re a little bit tired.

Of course, that doesn’t mean complaining. It does mean that if you’re having a bad day, you can say, “I just want to let you know, I had a busy day at work and it took a lot out of me, but I’m going to try and stay as present and engaged as I can.” People will only respect you for that. So be real, but also put your best foot forward.

Each of the individuals above has a different story, but the one thing that they all had in common was that they wanted to connect with others and they cared about how they made others feel.

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

When you make someone light up when they see you or when you connect with people determined not to like you, it makes the human connection that much greater.

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Written by

Cheyenne Diaz

Cheyenne Diaz is a former content writer at Mindvalley. She is a consultant and scholar who specializes in finding the financial support and partnerships necessary to create movements. With over six years of experience in media, programming and education, Cheyenne currently holds positions in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sector.
Picture of Cheyenne Diaz

Cheyenne Diaz

Cheyenne Diaz is a former content writer at Mindvalley. She is a consultant and scholar who specializes in finding the financial support and partnerships necessary to create movements. With over six years of experience in media, programming and education, Cheyenne currently holds positions in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sector.

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