The Psychology of Building Connections

Over the past three years (when I wasn’t at camp making schedules, fighting zombies, or pretending to be Albus Dumbledore), I spent my time studying school counseling. I learned about different counseling theories, skills that professionals use, and interventions that may be helpful. In class, I was learning to apply all of these concepts to the school setting, but when I would hear words like active listening, empathy, and person-centered, my mind immediately drifted to camp. I’ll admit, my mind drifts to camp throughout most of the day because I just love it so much, but I think it makes a lot of sense that I relate counseling to camp. It makes sense because both are based on one simple concept: building connections.

So the question becomes, how do we build connections? Carl Rogers, a well-known theorist and one of my favorites, proposed that there are three core conditions (well there are actually six, but these three are the important ones) that facilitate a strong connection between the counselor and client: empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness. I believe Rogers’ assertion, and I’d be willing to extend it beyond counselor and client, to people in general. In my time at camp, I’ve seen that when these three conditions are in place, opportunities for building connections arise within the daily happenings of Stomping Ground. 

Let’s go through each of the conditions, and find out what they really mean and how Stomping Ground seeks to provide a space in which they exist. 

EMPATHY

If you follow Stomping Ground’s blog, you’ve probably read a few different posts about empathy in its most radical form. Empathy, at its core, is understanding how someone else is feeling. Empathy can be cognitive, which is mentally understanding the emotions of another, or it can be affective, meaning you share in another’s feelings and have a congruent emotional response. 

Radical empathy is one of the three pillars on which Stomping Ground was founded, so it is easy to assume that empathy is fostered within the community, and I see it in two main aspects of camp: the circle system and play. The circle system, our tool for conflict resolution, is built on and relies on empathy. In a nutshell, members of the community agree to listen to and to try to understand each other’s perspective in order to resolve conflict, rather than to punitively assign blame. You can read more about what the circle system is and how it works here.     

Play is a key factor in building empathy skills (just ask Peter Gray). At Stomping Ground, kids are given the opportunity to practice empathy through playing, imaginary role-playing, and creating together, and they can then transfer those skills to real life occurrences. This happens in more structured activities such as morning options and all-camp night games, and in unstructured periods like village time, open waterfront, and open ballfield. 

UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD

Unconditional positive regard, according to Rogers, is accepting others as they are, without judgment. Stomping Ground teaches this to the staff and models it for the campers. The staff are taught to hear another’s perspective on a situation without placing their own judgment on it. Let me give you an example. If a camper says they are really mad because they lost at GaGa, then they are feeling really mad. It’s not the listener’s job to decide whether or not the person should be mad, how long they should be mad for, or how to fix it. Instead, the listener hears and understands the person’s feelings and offers to be present with the person in that moment (this is where the empathy comes into play!). As I said, the staff are trained in providing unconditional positive regard and then model it for the campers in everyday situations. 

GENUINENESS

Rogers considers genuineness, often referred to as congruence, to be the most important of the core conditions for building connection. As you saw in the last paragraph, these conditions are not exclusive of one another, and genuineness is what ties them together. Empathy and unconditional positive regard are irrelevant if they are not genuine. In fact, sometimes genuineness is all that’s needed. When I began my internship in counseling, I was terrified. What if I don’t know what to say to be empathic? What if I don’t know what to do to show unconditional positive regard? My supervisor told me the answer was simple: be genuine. If I genuinely wanted to help, support, care for, and connect with the person in front of me, things would fall into place. Stomping Ground facilitates genuineness by simply allowing each and every person there to exist as they are. No one is forced to be or to do anything. When people are free to opt into a decision on their own accord, genuineness flows naturally.

Camp Stomping Ground provides people with the space and opportunity to form some of the strongest connections possible. And I know this because I have seen happen. I’ve seen it in the makerspace, on the soccer field, and in the dining hall. I have watched older kids stand up for younger kids, campers confront staff, and large groups listen to one person’s point of view. All of this with empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness leading the way. This is where the magic happens and this is when connections are built. 

KATE MAHAR
MASTER OF FUN AND GAMES