Guest Column

The power of human interaction

September 15, 2017
| By Sam Beals |
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How often do you sit in a meeting, listening with one ear, while texting, emailing and IMing on your tablet, smartphone or both at once? When was the last time you attended an event solely to feel the warmth in a handshake or notice the glow in another person’s eyes while you listen to their words?

In an era of 24/7 connection via devices that seem to bridge distance while leaving us more alone than ever, we don’t often prioritize human interaction. And yet, according to researchers and leaders alike, success occurs only when we include humanity in a transaction.

It is essential to humanize a cause, stand shoulder to shoulder with others who share your mission. Every week, organizations host events, hoping to bring people together to raise funds and support causes. We have so many events to choose from that we often opt out, preferring a low-key night at home staring at screens.

As a nonprofit leader, I believe in the power of community to heal the world. I also realize the limitations we face, only so many hours in a day, a week, a life.

This fall, we are hosting our first West Michigan dinner event, a decision we did not come to lightly. We don’t want to be one in a long line of worthy events competing for donor dollars, time and attention.

As an organization whose purpose is to serve people so everyone can reach their potential, we know the value of connection. And with a generation of future leaders raised on screens, for whom relationships begin with a second-long Snap or posed pic shared with 300 close connections, we want to emphasize the importance of remaining close, even over the distance.

An organization’s mission and values are nothing without people driving both. Community service is, by definition, people serving the community.

Service is a face-to-face interaction. A look-me-in-the-eye reckoning that we all walk the same path toward wholeness. It’s hard to convey purpose and meaning in 140 characters. We cannot look beyond ourselves if all we have to gaze at our own reflection in a screen.

For as many reasons as we can find to avoid and dislike big events, I can offer as many reasons why we need them. To reconnect with community. To find shared values. To infuse our lives with purpose. To feel like we are part of something bigger. To remember that we matter.

I was born in a small town in Africa, and my first eight years showed me great injustice — while a few enjoyed fortune and comfort, the large majority did not. I saw the devastating impact of abject poverty and abuses to women, children and families. The divide affects us all, regardless of where we stand.

We cannot right wrongs from a distance.

When we come together, we find ways to build a better world. Standing in the same space, we volunteer, join boards and committees, and provide financial support to enable the work that needs to be done.

I’ve spent my life trying to level the playing field for everyone. The smile you see on someone’s face when his or her world opens cannot be truly understood from a social media post.

A growing body of research reveals that our need for social connection is as basic and as important as our need for food, water and shelter, according to UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman. An experiment by researchers from University of Chicago and Harvard showed that when a handshake begins, an interaction, openness, honesty and better outcomes unfold. That physical warmth activates the part of the brain associated with reward.

When you see another person take action, your brain automatically tries to mirror that action, according to Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti. And since every business is conducted by people, says Michael Massari, senior vice president of national meetings and events for Caesars Entertainment, strong, positive relationships lead to trust, understanding and a shared mission.

By coming together, we infuse our lives with meaning and good health. We become part of the solution.

This fall, as the calendar fills with all sorts of meaningful events, try to add your name to some of the rosters. Our world is only as good as the people who populate it. As scientist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, life is only unbearable if it lacks meaning and purpose. This fall, let’s come together to build a better world.

Sam Beals is CEO of Samaritas.

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