When I was a dance teacher, I focused on teaching dance as a performance art. My students danced both as soloists and as an ensemble. One day while practicing a group number a student said, “I’ll just practice at home. I mean, it’s this same thing as dancing alone.” Whoa. I thought, “If that’s what she thinks, I have failed as a teacher.”

Unfortunately, this type of thinking is common now. I am not sure why it’s happening – maybe it’s because of the perpetual face in the iPhone instead of actually interacting with other people. Whatever the reason, lots of people don’t feel connected and don’t know how to connect. They occupy the same space at the same time, and may even interact while doing it, but they aren’t connected. That leads to a really lonely and empty existence.

If you’re experiencing this and want to change it, read on to see how to develop connection.

Solitary Activity

When babies are two to three years old, they play alone. They don’t notice other people, and can be totally engrossed in what they are doing. They play only with their own toys. This is normal, healthy behavior. It sets the stage for being able to do things alone as adults as well.

Onlooker Stage

Once they get a little older (2 1/2 to 3 1/2 typically), babies will start to notice other people. They will look to see what others are doing. They may ask talk to other people about their activities, but they don’t join in.

Parallel Play

At this stage, babies play in proximity to others. They may share the same toys, but they aren’t interacting together. They are just occupying the same space at the same time while sharing some common elements.

Associative Play

This look a lot like parallel play except that there is personal interaction. There still is no common goal or cooperation, but there is an awareness of other people and interest in what they are doing.

Cooperative Play

At this stage, people have awareness of others, are interested in others, work with others, and move towards common goals. Roles are assigned. Each person does his part to support the group. Everyone understands the value of teamwork.

I’m sure that you’ve either heard or felt someone express that the best person to have around is the one that you feel comfortable in silence with. That’s a completely different experience than being in Solitary Activity stage. If you’re functioning in the Solitary Activity stage, you aren’t connected. It doesn’t matter if another person is present or not because you aren’t aware of them. They aren’t part of your experience. When you are connected in a room with someone without talking, without engaging in an activity, you feel their presence. It’s warm, comforting, and alive.

Going back to my dance student, what she failed to see is that doing a choreography with people, is not the same as soloing. You may be doing the same movements in both scenarios, but in an ensemble piece, you are doing them in the context of a group setting. This means that you need to have an awareness of other people, interact with those other people, and be a part of the whole. If you’re always soloing, you’re going to feel really lonely and out of place.

The stages listed above was developed by Jean Piaget to describe how children develop social skills. It’s the foundation of connection. Without social skills, there can be no connection. Fortunately, you can learn to develop connection. If you are struggling with making friends, getting along with others, or not being included, take a look at the stages above and rate your level of mastery at each level. If you think you’re doing well at each level, ask someone who will give you a more objective appraisal.

Lots of shy  people function at the Onlooker stage. Lots of people who aren’t particularly mindful function at the Parallel Play stage. Identifying where you are can let you know where to start building skills. Start where you are. These skills are cumulative. They build on the one before. Practice skills that will build competence at each level and soon your social skills will improve as well as your ability to connect. Nobody wants to solo through life. You can get by when you’re faking it or you can learn to do something different. The choice is yours.