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How to be human: learning to communicate — really communicate — at any age

Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo Universidad de Sevilla

Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

This is just a small issue that will probably be solved with time. Or maybe I'm just a little confused, and I don't really have a problem at all. Whatever's going on, I think your perspective can help clarify things for me. What pushed me to write this email wasn't a sense of urgency, but rather a "what can I lose?" vibe. I suspect there's people asking you for advice for far more complex and critical situations, and I beg you to address those cases first, since I don't feel like I'm in any sort of crisis.

I'm a somewhat introverted teenager, and, although I have plenty of female friends, I've never been in any kind of serious involvement with a girl. It is not that I feel the need to get into one, it is just that every time I think I start really liking a girl, I feel clueless about what to do about it. I sometimes feel like I'm too cold with relationships.

Most of my friends who are "successful" with girls spend their days texting them for the simple sake of chatting with them, but that seems tiresome and pointless to me. Besides, those friends may be "successful" with girls, but I bet they've never had a deep relationship with any of them, which is what I ultimately desire when I like a girl. It is baffling how some of my friends go from girl to girl as pure entertainment and I'm just sitting here, thinking about what should I do to get somewhere significant with a girl.

I just don't know what to do in those moments where it feels like I should take some sort of action.

Thanks anyway, 3rcfman.

***

Hey Leah,

I’ve been married 24 years — my kids are 18, 16 and 8. We have one dog, a puppy.

I was out for lunch with my 8-year-old daughter today (just the two of us) and she said, "If you and mommy get divorced, which of the four of us are you going to take?"

My wife and I get along great. What gives?

Not Divorcing

Hey 3 and ND,

Right now, I bet the two of you are sitting here reading this column wondering to yourselves: Why on earth is Leah answering our questions at once, and what could we possibly have in common? 3 is a teenager looking ahead at dating, and ND is a dad who has at least one, maybe two teenagers older than 3 is!

But when I read both of your emails, I got to thinking about something that’s been on my mind for a long time, and that — surprisingly — is at the heart of both your letters. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to do so while simultaneously giving a little advice to each of you.

One of the things that is hard for many of us, maybe even all of us, in relationships with other people, is communication. We have trouble remembering that often the solution to a problem starts with listening and really caring about what the other person feels, needs, perceives. Even if — shit, especially if — those feels, needs, perceptions are different from our own. You can think you’re doing the right thing, and maybe you are doing the best thing from your perspective. But asking and listening can help you understand when and how to shift your behavior slightly so someone else can better receive what you’re trying to give them. Hopefully they’re able to do the same for you. And hopefully you both have times where you say, "This isn’t exactly what works for me but I know it’s how they show affection or understanding, so I’m going to appreciate it as such."

Often the solution to a problem starts with listening and really caring about what the other person feels

ND, your subject line said your question might be out of my wheelhouse, and you’re at least a little right — I don’t have children, so there’s probably a limit of how much advice I can give a dad, especially one who has three kids. Someone recently told me they didn’t think people without children should give parents advice, not even in advice columns, and I can see that to a certain extent. But I’m answering your question because I think it’s not just a dad thing, it’s a human thing.

I don’t know where your daughter came up with this question. I imagine it must have a) shocked you and b) gutted you a tiny bit, because who wants to think of their child worrying about something so scary like this. Plus, you and your wife are happy, so who on Earth could have given her this idea if not you or your wife?

Now, even if I don’t know for sure the origin of this question, I have a guess. And better than a guess, I also have a suggestion. My guess is your daughter heard someone talking about divorce, like from one of her friends at school whose parents are divorcing. She heard about how, in a divorce, sometimes the parents will "take" the kids, or one parent will "take" one kid while the other "take" the other kid and the dog. Her friend might have been scared and upset, worried about what this means, worried it’s her fault or her parents don’t love her. Maybe one kid’s parents are getting divorced and the dad’s being a jerk, and the kid is worried her dad doesn’t love her anymore. Or maybe your daughter overheard other adults talking. Or maybe it came up in a class discussion! However it came about, she heard about divorce and now has an 8-year-old’s idea of how it works. She wants to know what would happen to her if you and your wife divorced.

That’s basically what she’s asking. She is saying to you, "Daddy, if you and mommy get divorced, what will happen to me? Will you take me? Will you still love me? Will the dog be okay?"

The advice I have here is the most fundamental advice I can give: sit down with your daughter and listen to her.

Ask her questions. Gently explore where this question came from. Ask her if she’s worried you and your wife will separate, and if she’s worried about what would happen to her and her siblings and her beloved pet should anything like this ever happen. Talk to her about grown up relationships in a way that is honest but isn’t full of details she doesn’t need to know. Talk to her, but most importantly listen to her. She’s telling you she’s scared of something, and she wants to understand what that thing is so she can feel safe.

Let’s check in on our pal 3, now. 3, the advice I have for you is weirdly similar. No, you do not have to sit down with any of the girls you know and talk about divorce and whether they’re worried their dads will stop loving them. But you do need to start at the same place: asking questions and listening.

You may never be like some of your guy friends, who can chat all day with a girl (or multiple girls), whether having a real conversation or texting back and forth without ever seeming to say much at all. That’s okay. Some people like doing that and some don’t, so there’s room in this big world for you.

But I do caution you against thinking that a texting and chatting is "pointless," or that a guy who likes to chat with a girl all day is somehow not having a serious, deep, or truly successful relationship. People connect in a wide variety of ways, in very valid ways that don’t always resonate with everyone. Idle chatter may seem dumb to you, but to someone else it has value and meaning — it’s a way of showing affection and enjoying each other’s sense of humor, or simply letting the other person know you’re thinking of them.

People connect in a wide variety of ways

Yes, there are undoubtedly guy friends of yours who are chatting all day with girls whom they have no serious interest in. Maybe those girls will get hurt when the guy turns out to be a player — or maybe the guy will get hurt when the girl turns out to be similar. And maybe some of these guys are texting because they know many girls really like it when guys they’re dating respond quickly to texts. And you know what? That’s still worth doing: The things that makes the person you’re dating feel safe and appreciated and understood, like you get her needs and she gets yours, and the whole thing isn’t on one person’s terms.

What’s happening is an important form of communication, however silly it may seem on the surface.

The things that seem deep and meaningful to you may very well be deep and meaningful, but so are things that seem less so on the surface. These casual interactions often show how we listen to one another and learn each other’s language and way of being. A dating relationship can’t exist on serious big conversations alone. There has to be fun, and there have to be little acts that show you’re paying attention even when the topic isn’t weighty and deep.

So how do you get somewhere significant with a girl, especially when you’re someone who freezes up? Start by listening. Ask questions, even ones as dumb seeming as, "hi, what’s up?" "how’s your day," or "did you have fun at dress rehearsal?" Listen and respond and laugh. Work toward that something significant, rather than expecting it to happen right away. Remember that even adults, who are supposed to be more grown up than teenagers (and who often aren’t) don’t wander around having only serious conversations. We do a lot of silly stuff too, and we get to know one another over time, which actually makes the serious conversations more fun and the silly stuff more meaningful.

So to both of you, ND and 3, and to everyone else out there, my advice is the same: Ask questions, communicate openly, and most of all, listen. People will tell you what they want and need, who they are and what will reassure them and make them feel safe. They might not always tell you in so many words, so you — we all — need to get better at listening and understanding each other.

Lx