Cheryl Strayed (I literally cannot stop mentioning her) has a line in her Dear Sugar column: “Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
I would like to argue that it is not just acceptance, but also connection. For meaningful connections with people of all ages—from kindergarteners to old folks—it is imperative to act as though you are in a small, quiet room.
I have found no one rule more important when trying to understand someone’s issues or concerns than to imagine myself in a room with them, alone. When you are alone in a room with someone, you do not scratch at the door like a cat, you do not whine-cry like a baby, you do not look everywhere but at them. You look. You focus on their beings and their reactions and how their thoughts match or disagree with your own.
When you focus your whole attention on someone, you receive a very gratifying understanding of them that is otherwise difficult to find. Friends have said over the years that I’m a good judge of character, and I’ve always thought that while that was very kind of them to say, there was nothing stopping them from reading people in the same way I did. They just didn’t focus. They didn’t stop clenching their whole beings in fear of being judged and instead just ask questions.
There’s a logic puzzle that involves this very same tactic. I wrote about it in my 21 Verified Rules challenge. When you try to pull something out of someone, or open something with force, there is a high chance it will stay closed. If you take a moment to understand how the apparatus works, or how a fact is imbedded in the argument, you will figure out your answer much quicker. Sometimes, a latch opens when you push on it instead of pull. Think openly.
This is the same with people. If you stop worrying about who people are, what they think about you, and where their interests lie, and just ask them questions, you can find out a lot more. By being open, by relaxing that part of you that social convention tells to keep hidden and precious, you encourage others to be open. And this is how connection happens.
I used to work at an arts camp with children of all ages. When I was younger, my favourite kids to work with were always the younger ones: the ones you could excite and ply with candy and recess breaks. I think this was because connections with a toddler can come, but they are rarely, if ever, intense unless you are directly related to them. You can “aww” at them, and enjoy their silliness, but that connection of, “hey, this person is incredible” doesn’t happen because these kids are made up of 98% “awws” and %2 silliness.
When I got older, so did the age group I enjoyed working with. This is not to say I stopped enjoying to work with toddlers, but it became more difficult for me. And as an 18-20 year old, I constantly wanted connection. I started working with 7+ year olds, who were starting to get into pop culture, had favourite tv shows and songs, and wanted to know about me in their cute, inquisitive ways. They wanted to be like me, to be near me, and that is a very heady feeling, to be so admired.
But their gains in knowledge also allowed us to share certain things with each other. It allowed me to show them how to open up to someone and when it was safe to do so. A lot of kids that age are very shy and nervous around others, and when you go up to them they tend to either back away (like horses would), or shyly accept the company. When I sat beside kids and asked them about what they liked to do at home or what their favourite projects were, it started conversations that could go on for the entire class (or until I felt like I should walk around and see how everyone else was doing). But when they talked, I tried to put my full attention on them. It was a challenge to myself because there were so many other things going on at the time that anyone would have difficulty blocking any of it out. But I tried, and I was usually rewarded by a pretty clear understanding of that kid and how to work with them from then on.
We are so often ignored in this world, or listened to over the tv or music, that when someone pays attention to you and your opinions wholly, it startles and flatters us. This person is totally focused on what I have to say, is a very important feeling to have, and we don’t feel it often enough.
I do the same thing when I tutor, and everyone that has ever taught kids, adults, or teenagers without them listening knows the frustration and obviousness when students’ attention strays. You want to just hold them by the shoulders and say LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN. Not just “I’m listening!” but really listening, with your mind, and your attention, and your desire to hear.