02/05/2015 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Belonging: Why Making People Feel They Matter Matters

By: Pat Christen, President and CEO of HopeLab


For the past several years, my husband and I have traded the tradition of making New Year's resolutions for a new tradition constructing individual collages of our intentions for the coming year. There's no plan, no agenda, no pre-determined outcome. We clip photos that appeal to us, grab words and phrases that resonate or remind us of our deepest values. We've done this for three years now. It's a remarkably fun and illuminating process.

What emerged from my collage for 2015 was a visual depiction of areas in my life that are deeply meaningful to me. My roles as a mother, a wife and a leader at work each found a place, as did a beautiful array of fresh fruits and vegetables (symbolic of my commitment to my personal health and well-being).

Holding a place of honor at the center of my collage, I placed a quote from and image of Maya Angelou that touched me deeply: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Only one month into 2015, I'm already aware of how this quote has influenced my engagement with others. In my experience, the way people feel about themselves is directly related to whether they feel fully seen, respected and loved - in short, whether they feel they belong.

The search for a sense of belonging seems at the center of many news stories that have dominated our headlines in recent months. Incidents in Ferguson, Staten Island, Oakland, and beyond reveal a violent tug-of-war to resolve profound otherness-belongingness tensions.

From outrage to compassion

The killing of cartoon satirists, shoppers at a kosher grocery store, police and hostages in Paris have brought this struggle into stark and tragic relief. Angry and alienated individuals struck out at what they perceived to be the agents of their disengagement. The response to these attacks was a profound and predictable outrage. My own reaction was in utter opposition to my commitment to fully see others: I saw the perpetrators as only sick criminals, committing horrific acts. Given their crimes, this was not a huge leap in logic; I joined millions of people around the globe in this response.

But then, a young man who was identified as an accomplice in the Paris shootings turned himself in. He was 18. Suddenly, as a mother, my judgment became more nuanced. I began to wonder: How could this boy come to follow this path? What happened during his short life that so damaged and alienated him? I have since pivoted back and forth in my judgments of the young men involved. One moment I see them as irreparably dangerous; the next minute they are someone's sons, and my view of them as "the other" is upended.

It's all too easy to see people whose behavior confounds, dismays, or horrifies us as "the other." We're biologically wired this way. When our ancestors roamed a physically hostile earth, our brains developed a remarkable capacity to quickly categorize and respond to a host of alien threats. To misjudge the threat meant certain harm or death.

Small steps, big change

How might we temper this innate behavior? How might we minimize our reactivity, increase our capacity for insight about others, and mitigate our destructive spirals of suspicion, isolation and hatred? Certainly, we need not accept or condone acts of violence. Nonetheless, how might we hold ourselves personally accountable for creating a world of belongingness rather than one of alienation? What can we do to take personal responsibility for the world we are creating?

My 2015 collage captured this intention as "Small steps, big change." Through small steps taken in our everyday lives, we can cultivate greater clarity, become more discerning and less reactive. This is not the only answer, of course, but it's a place to start, a way in which we can be immediately accountable for the quality of relationship and belonging in our communities. Consider this wonderful example from Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York blog, where a beautiful image of a young boy on a Brooklyn street was recently posted with the following exchange:

"Who's influenced you the most in your life?"

"My principal, Ms. Lopez."

"How has she influenced you?"

"When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter."

Ms. Lopez, doesn't use the term "student" to describe the children under her tutelage. Instead, she calls them "scholars" to demonstrate that she sees in them their capacity to achieve. She underscores the fact that they matter. With acts such as this, we begin to re-wire our minds and the minds of those with whom we interact to be less reactive and more confident in their worth and their essential place in our world. In small ways and large, we let individuals know they matter, that we are diminished without them.

Remember, people will never forget how you made them feel.

Just ask Ms. Lopez's scholars.