Every human being seeks connection. Without it, we literally die.
Babies require physical affection (hugs, kisses, being picked up) in order to grow and develop into empathetic human beings who can recognise other people as other human beings. When a baby gets no physical attention, sometimes they get sick and die with no other explainable medical cause. This is called “failure to thrive”.
What babies do for this attention is they cry or they look cute. It gives us a reason to help them, hold them and smile at them. Either we find them adorable and instinctively want to pick them up, tickle them or do peek-a-boo with them, or we feel pain hearing their cries and feel compelled to act. This usually gets babies the attention they need to thrive.
Adults need attention too, but we just have much more complicated ways to get attention, often disconnected (by way of logic) from what actually works. We shout at our partners for not being attentive enough. We push our friends away in the hopes that they will see that something is wrong and ask about it. We tease people we are attracted to because we read somewhere that it makes us seem less needy.
These are called “bids” and we are making them all the time. Telling someone about something good that happened to you is a bid. We are sharing our lives with others all the time.
When we recognise this and look out for bids from other people looking for attention, we get a remarkable chance to connect. Adults rarely actually say “I’m struggling and I need someone to just talk to me” but they say it with a random WhatsApp message just saying “Hey, how’s life?” or by being a little bit quieter than usual during your monthly bowling game.
The second part of this is the more challenging part in my opinion: not trying to solve their problem. Most of the time when people start to open up about what they are feeling and how they are suffering, it’s easy to go straight into solutions mode.
“You had a fight with your girlfriend? Why don’t you do xyz?”
The harder and more valuable thing to do is to not give your advice or your opinion, and just sit in the emotion with the person. A lot of people feel uncomfortable when we hear people’s genuine emotions, so we avoid it by going into an analytical, solutions-oriented mindset. Don’t. Go deeper.
“What are you afraid about?”
That’s what most people actually want when they come to you to talk about something tough. If they want your advice as well, they will ask. Remember that you have a chance to connect with someone when they make a bid. You could help a lot just by noticing.