What Kind of Friend Are You?

moms-and-babiesNot 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.

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Genuine Friendship vs. Being a Big Talker

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Twenty years ago my ears were opened to the possibility I wasn’t a good conversationalist. I wouldn’t have believed it had it been said straight up–as I’ve always been a talker, someone who can fill most any awkward pause with a random story, quip or observation. But I’ve learned something that maybe you’ve known all along; genuine conversation should consist of more than the sound of our own voice, whether it’s out loud or rambling inside our head while others are talking. Real conversation involves intentional listening, questioning and a genuine interest in the lives of others.

How did I discover I wasn’t doing it right? Welp, I was at work and had wandered into a colleague’s office to share a story. He seemed to welcome the interruption and smiled broadly at whatever I was saying. I carried on, holding court for several minutes until I finally said, “I’ve been talking so much and you haven’t said a word.” His frank response, believe it or not, was, “People like to talk about themselves; so I let them.”

Imagine the gobsmacked expression on my face. My temptation was to be insulted and defensive because I believe my banter to be entertaining and even informative. But the truth is, I want to be more than a verbal performer. I want to be a better conversationalist, colleague and friend.

Getting beyond small talk…

It may seem like a no-brainer, but for people like me, who’re apt to plunge into any conversational lull in an attempt to keep things moving–try not to monopolize a discussion. Whether you’re talking about family, fashion or current events, be sure to pause and ask about others’ thoughts on a topic or switch the focus completely to another person by inquiring about what’s going on in their life.

Ask questions and actually listen to what you’re being told. If people don’t open up right away, be patient. Some folks need a few seconds to build courage and those seconds of silence only seems painful to a talkative person. Plus, be sensitive to whether your opinion or response is invited or if your friend simply wants to talk about what’s on his or her mind. Shockingly, I’ve learned not everybody cares what I think about what they say. Sometimes people simply want to talk. And in my wise friend’s words, we should let them.

Questioning forces our active interest in others, and the deeper a relationship, the more important reciprocal interest should become. Sometimes I practice not volunteering information about my life unless I’ve been asked. This seems like a good way for me not to monopolize any given conversation. But I’ll warn you–by doing this, I’ve discovered that some people don’t ask. Maybe they’re so used to windbags like me freely offering up information that the need to question doesn’t occur to them, or maybe, {gasp} they don’t really care. I know that seems a harsh assessment, but it’s why I’m trying to be better about questioning and listening, because I do care. Well… not about everybody or everything. But I’m working on it.

Try not to interrupt even if you think you have something important to say. I never realized how bad I am about interrupting until I lived away from my hometown for several years. Then during a return visit, a bunch of relatives got together, and at the end of the evening, we attempted to play cards. Oh, how I remember the many members of my beloved family chiming in to give instructions on how to play the game, each louder than the last so as to be heard without actually waiting for anybody else to stop talking. I became overwhelmed by a layered cacophony of boisterous know-it-alls competing to be heard. Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. But it was in that moment I recognized a learned behavior I must work to reign in. Well, unless I have something really important to say, which of course I often do. I suppose discerning the importance of our words is probably best left for another post.

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