How to Connect with Others

By Shlomo Maital

    “Don’t talk to strangers”.  I guess a generation of parents has taught this to their kids.  But according to Julie Lythcott-Haims, this is not good advice.  We want our kids to be good at making connections, at social skills… safely, of course.  Julie is a prize-winning author, and lately, her book Your Turn: How to Be an Adult  offers really good advice on just that – how to be an adult,  which is more than chronologically reaching, say, 21 and legally entering a bar. 

      Earlier, she counselled parents on how not to be ‘helicopter parents’, hovering over kids and overprotecting them (I was the son of a helicopter mom, but finally escaped and ran off to college).  As parents, we need to make our kids resilient, self-confident, self-reliant, able (as Julie says practically) to find shelter, look after their possessions, prepare food for themselves, and, yes, talk comfortably to others. 

      Lythcott-Haims has an interesting background.  She is the daughter of a prominent Black physician and British white mother.  She is a former Dean of Stanford freshmen, and for years, evaded her Black origins, finally embracing it.

       I want to focus mainly on one aspect of how to be an adult – connecting with others.  It took me a very long time to learn this skill, far too long.  The key is, truly caring about other people, respecting them, even loving them, and finding out, sometimes in advance, what really sparks their interest.  For my acquaintances, I pretty much now have a catalog of their interests.  This applies to those from ages four or five (we have grandchildren, lots of ‘em), to 95.   Our grandson Z. loves animals.  So we talk a lot about them.  E. likes science and stuff.  A close friend, elderly and ill, loves Broadway musicals – we talk about Sondheim and Rogers & Hammerstein.   It takes a while to make connections.  A good start is to ask some questions, avoid small talk, be genuinely interested, and when you see the light go on in their eyes,  go for it… follow up.   In part, this means that you yourself need to be interested in a lot of different things.  It helps a lot.

     We know for a fact that those with strong relationships live longer healthier lives.  So literally, learning to connect is indeed a matter of life and death.  And practice makes perfect.  So, yes, do talk to strangers.  After 10 minutes of zeroing in on their passion, they are no longer strangers.   And sometimes, one good question can get the ball rolling.

     Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson hated small talk, and used to ask people, when he met them,  “what have you learned since we last met?”  I try this sometimes.   It’s a pretty hard question – but at least, it gets a smile, and sometimes ignites a great chat.

   Yes, this is a kind of self-help book – but one of the best ones, based on Julie’s long experience in counselling young people at the doorstep of adulthood.  Give her advice a try.

    I first learned of it on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air podcast, in a fine interview by Dave Davies, subbing for Terry Gross.