Not long ago, I wrote a post about being a big talker and how I desire to be a better friend and conversationalist by being a better listener and developing genuine interest in the lives of others. But because I’m still a pretty big talker, I have more to say on the subject. This time, it’s about being prepared for what you might hear when you show interest.
I learned this lesson, and something about myself, years ago when I attempted to connect with another mother I met at a mom’s group. We were laundry laden, puke stained housewives whose most connective commonality was a need for social interaction and some brief play-date distraction for our toddlers before naptime.
She invited me over. On the designated day, I packed the kiddos into the mini-van and schlepped my mom gear to her house, which was equally strewn with toys and layers of protective coffee table corner bumpers, cupboard locks and electrical outlet protectors. We set the urchins free to discover the cultural mores of sharing while we sipped coffee and chitchatted about how cute they were.
I imagined the rest of her life, much like her home, mirrored mine. But I inquired anyway in order to make conversation. Whoops!
She began by telling me her husband was between jobs; that their home was leased and they were facing the possibility of having to move in with parents if they continued to struggle to make the rent; that their financial distress was causing her husband to become despondent, and her to become fearful and frustrated. Wait. What?
I was shocked, completely unprepared to hear her tales of woe. Worse, I was attempting to befriend this woman in order to get my own needs for companionship met. I was not prepared, and honestly not much interested, in bearing anyone else’s burdens at that time. (I know the face you’re making while judging me. I’ve made it myself plenty of times.)
Anyway, the moment passed. I surely found some seemingly polite way to escape being a real friend and limit future conversations to superficial meanderings about potty training or thumb sucking.
My point is not to highlight what an insensitive baby wipe I can be; it’s to share what I’ve learned… that not all friendships are meant to be equal. That before entering into a relationship, we should honestly consider not only what our own needs are, but also attempt to evaluate what the needs of the other person may be, and then ask ourselves, “Am I equipped to be this person’s friend?”
The same is true in reverse. Before we begin detailing our struggles to anyone who read a blog post about being a better listener, we should ask ourselves, “Is this person capable of dealing with what I’m about to say?” By capable, I mean in a mentally healthy place, having demonstrated a bit of wisdom, isn’t currently overwhelmed by personal challenges and appear to actually give a fat frog’s fanny. Hint: if your friend frequently changes the subject or shuts down completely whenever a conversation delves into unpleasant territory, this is not a person prepared to hear your laments. And that’s okay.
I’ve come to believe friends tend to fall into a few categories and it’s helpful to thoughtfully identify what the purpose of each relationship truly is. Some people are our friends in the deepest sense, equal partners in a mutual to-and-fro of emotional support, laughter and companionship. Others are simply acquaintances that we should not burden with personal struggles, and still others are people we are mostly meant to hear, support and pray for without expecting them to meet any of our needs in return, because for whatever reason, they can’t.
Maybe if we give the real purpose of our presence in someone’s life more thought, we won’t be caught off guard and miss an opportunity to be the kind of friend we ought to be.