Striving for Meaning

02/01/2016 01:25 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2017

What does it take to spark authentic conversation? Recent articles claim that people crave connection, are starved for meaning, are seeking questions that reach below the surface. However, despite the evident interest in connections of depth, most people struggle to get there. How do you move a conversation from superficial to meaningful? How do you grow relationships that are built on intentional interaction?

Over seven years of coffee dates, often with students I was meeting for the first time, I learned a lot about moving conversations in this direction. Before I moved to Seattle, I worked as a Hillel engagement professional for two different college campuses in California. In the language of Jewish communal professionals, engagement means relationship-building, and it refers most often to the deep one-on-one conversations that most people crave, but can only seem to initiate with close friends.

Whenever I had three or more coffee dates in a row, I felt like a campus story collector. Stories were everywhere, hovering around their people like auras made of words. As I walked through the quad, I saw vowels and consonants tumbling through hair, adjectives and verbs whipping in the wind like streamers tied to bicycle spokes. From my current perspective as a newcomer in a big city, the ability to spark and collect authentic conversations is one of the most helpful skills I learned on the job, and it's one that I hope to continue developing through my new role as Jewish Engagement Lead at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.

I acknowledge that the "Jewish" part of my work empowers me to have these conversations more often. Being a Jewish professional gives me permission to approach topics that most people avoid. I am allowed to ask questions about life and death and why. I can start a conversation about prayer or about God. People are willing to offer their beliefs (or lack thereof) because they assume I have a special understanding, even though I'm not a rabbi and my Jewish academic degree is in education. Having "Jewish" in my title means I can create space for discussions that crack us open in the best way possible. When our lives seem to be full of surface-level interactions, a Jewish conversation can be a welcome relief, a deep breath in the middle of a long week.

This is not to say that religion is a prerequisite for meaning, however; these questions are meaningful because they're universal. How did I get here? Where am I going? Why does it matter? Recognizing that we share these questions goes a long way toward addressing that most critical need: to know that we are not alone. Whether I'm talking with an 18-year-old or a 60-year-old, everyone, at some point, reveals that they feel isolated in one way or another. As it turns out, we are all alone together, and if we learn to approach conversations from this perspective, we might find out we have more in common than we think.

With that in mind, I offer the following three practices that I developed over seven years of story-collecting, for those who are looking to deepen their connections.

The first is to ask "What got you excited about _________?" as a follow-up question to "So what do you do?" or "What's your major?" When I asked a student what got her excited about politics, I learned that her dad took her to protests on "Take your Daughter to Work Day." We had a wonderful discussion about how our families can nurture our passions. Another student discovered her love of entrepreneurship through beekeeping. A discussion about writing led to a deeper discussion about secular spirituality.

"What got you interested in _______?" encourages people to ask that question themselves, and to share a story that's personal and meaningful to them. Instead of asking what someone does for a living, I ask what moves them. It's a question about where they've come from, and how that affects where they're going.

The second practice is more obvious, but perhaps harder to carry out: It's all about follow-up. If my coffee date mentions that they are visiting family this weekend, I send a follow-up text (or email or Facebook message) asking how the visit went. It doesn't have to be about something as momentous as a family visit. It could be a follow-up question about a book they're reading, a class they're taking, a movie they're about to see, or a stressful week at work. A quick message like "I remember that last week was a little stressful for you - hope this one is going better!" is not only a day-brightener. It's my invitation to continue deepening the relationship.

And people need that invitation. They need to know that I'm asking for the truth when I ask them how they're doing, and that I want to hear all of it - the good, the bad, and the existential. Most of us fear vulnerability as much as we crave meaningful connections. This understanding informs my third practice, which is to approach each conversation with gratitude. Each person who shares a chapter of their lives with me is also sharing their trust. Every connection is a gift, and for that, I am deeply thankful.