What does it take to be a true friend? Last week, I reflected on the challenges of asking for help. This week, I find myself reflecting on the challenges of giving it.
I have this friend who is simply awesome at lending support. Of course, I’ve given her plenty of opportunity to practice; we’ve known each other for 30 years, and many of those – particularly the early ones– weren’t pretty! Over the years, I’ve marvelled at her ability to help me figure out what I need to do, without actually telling me what to do. But try as I might to emulate her when helping a friend in need, I just don’t seem to have her grace.
This week, a dear friend of mine has found herself confronted with having to make one of the biggest decisions of her life. I am confident that I have been there for her 100%, but I am not confident that I’ve been the best friend I could be. I’m extremely opinionated (spot the understatement). I want so badly to be a true friend – to lend an ear and a shoulder, pose questions, listen quietly without judgement – but I can’t seem to disguise my biases, and that’s prompted me to explore this question:
What does it take to be a true friend?
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again; I’m no psychologist. I have nothing but my personal experiences to go on, but in my 50+ years, I have plenty of those behind me. Looking back on my friendships over the decades, as well as my experience on both the giving and receiving end of support, here are my humble thoughts on how to be a true friend to someone in need.
- Listen actively. Not just to her words but to the silences in between. Give her time to stop and reflect on the emotions that are bubbling to the surface. Sure, she may have put them into words, but that doesn’t mean she’s come to terms with them. Nor does it mean she believes them with conviction. Be gentle. Be soft. Go slow. Give her a chance to add, revise or entirely withdraw something she’s said before responding.
- Ask questions. Not solution-oriented questions, like “Why don’t you try doing this or try doing that?” but ones that might help her clarify her feelings: “How long have you felt this way? How did that make you feel? Do you see a way to make this situation better?”
- Separate yourself. Remember, your friend will have to live with the decision she makes, not you. What you would do if you were in her shoes really doesn’t matter. I write this rather sheepishly because I know that, despite having the best of intentions, I have the ability to bully others into seeing things my way. Heaven forbid you convince a friend to take action that’s right for you but ends up being completely wrong for her.
- Be humble. Unless you’ve gone through life making no bad decisions (and let’s face it, few of us have), recognize the possibility that your perspective on her situation may be as skewed as the perspectives you’ve previously had on your own.
- Use restraint. You know how you’re allowed to say mean things about your family but nobody else is? Remember that when supporting your friend. If she’s been mistreated by someone she loves – a spouse, a sibling, a child or even a parent– keep in mind that she loves them, most likely for better or for worst. While expressing disdain for the person that’s wronged her may seem supportive at the time, in the long run it may create a wedge between you, especially if they resolve their differences.
- Acknowledge your biases. If you’ve ‘been there’ yourself, you may find yourself inclined to say, “I get it. I’ve been there. And here’s what I think.” But you haven’t. No matter how similar your experiences may have been, they can’t possibly have been the same because you’re two unique individuals. Acknowledge that you’re responding based on your personal experience and encourage your friend to act based on hers.
- Don’t give unsolicited advice. Unless your friend looks you in the eye and directly asks you what you think she should do, don’t tell her what to do. Give her comfort, validation, respite, because no harm will ever come from being a friend she can lean on.
- Give unsolicited advice. I know. I just said you shouldn’t give advice but there are exceptions to every rule. If you fear a friend is in serious physical or emotional danger but know her despair runs too deep for her to see it herself, speak up. How will you know you’re at that place? Your concerns for her safety will outweigh your concerns about losing her friendship.
To be a true friend, you need more than good intentions.
This week has taught me that. While I’ve never been short of the will to be a good friend, I have sometimes been short of the way. More than a simple writing exercise, this post has allowed me to process my shortcomings in this respect.
It’s funny. When I share self-reflections like this with friends, they’ll often tell me not to be so hard on myself. But I truly don’t believe I’m being hard on myself at all. On the contrary, with every self-indulgent but honest look at myself, I find I’m taking one more step towards inner peace. If I happen to inspire you to take one, too, all the better!