How to Connect with Someone

“Be genuinely interested in everyone you meet and everyone you meet will be genuinely interested in you.”- Rasheed Ogunlaru

I haven’t seen my father since I was nine years old. When my mom and I left Uzbekistan as refugees it was rushed and chaotic. So the last time I saw my father was when he hugged me goodbye at the airport. Then for many years and for many reasons, I avoided contact with my father. My father now lives in St. Petersburg, Russia and so avoiding contact was easy. But in the last couple of years, I have been rebuilding our relationship. On Fridays, we have a weekly video call. It has been amazing but also sometimes frustrating.

The frustration comes because our conversations are often simply small talk. I don’t enjoy small talk. I want to get to know my dad and for him to know me. Last Friday was one of the times we moved beyond small talk and something beautiful happened. The conversation started as it usually does. My dad asked me all the normal questions. “How are you? How is work? Are you married yet? When am I getting grandkids?” Typical but not meaningful. So I decided to open up. I told him about my school life. How I felt like an outsider when I was growing up and the bullying and difficulties I experienced.

Suddenly I realized that I had never asked my dad about his childhood. So I asked. “What was school like for you? Were you bullied?”

My dad blinked a couple of times. Then he looked at me and smiled. “Son, everybody loved your father. I was really popular. All the girls loved me and all the boys wanted to be my friend.”

I remember feeling my eye twitch because I knew there was no way that could be true. I know my father. He’s cool but not the easiest person to get along with. I didn’t challenge him but I did continue the conversation. I have a rule that I follow up on the breadcrumbs people leave during a conversation. “What do you remember most about school?”

He paused for a moment but then answered “My teacher. My teacher was kind to me. She helped me and encouraged me to play the guitar.” My eyes widened in surprise. I knew my father had played the guitar for years but I assumed it was because his dad played. “My father didn’t give me the encouragement and confidence that my teacher did.”

More breadcrumbs. So I followed up again. “What is your best memory with your teacher?”

He thought for a split second. Then my dad’s eyes went wide and he smiled and said; “We had a recital at school and I was nervous to play the guitar, but my teacher encouraged me. And so I worked up the courage and played. That was the only time my father visited me at school. And I remember him sitting in the audience as everyone applauded. When we got home, my father complimented me. It is the only compliment I remember getting from him.”

At this point in our conversation, my dad started to tear up. My dad doesn’t believe that crying is manly. So this was notable. But because my dad was teary-eyed, I started to tear up too. Then my dad looked at me and said “Men don’t cry.”

I looked at him “But you’re crying. What do you mean?” We both laughed.

“This is a special conversation. Thank you, Aleks. I look forward to talking to you next week.”

Grinning from ear to ear, I replied “Yeah Dad, I can’t wait.”

“And I look forward to you having a wife by next week as well.” So we laughed again and ended the call.

When I think about these moments of connection that I have had with my dad over the last couple of years, it is all because of one important rule. Connection is not built on what we say but by finding out the whys of what people say. You have to follow the breadcrumbs to find deeper connections. So next time when someone shares their love for a movie or a type of food or a vacation spot, ask them why. Why do you love this movie? Why is that your favourite vacation spot? What do you love about this restaurant?  At a minimum, you will feel that you’ve gotten closer. It might even open up a new level of connection you never thought possible. And isn’t that we all need more of in our lives –  connection and #belong?

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