Thursday, July 16, 2009

Managing a Friendship

All friendships have their difficult and awkward moments. Anyone who wants to have many and good friendships should know how to deal with such moments constructively.

Dr. Irene Levine reminds us of this point on the Huffington Post today. Link here.

Let us look at a couple of the situations that Dr. Levine asked friendship expert Frances Isaacs to address.

First, what do you do when your friend talks too much about herself and is boring you to tears?

Isaacs suggests, correctly, that the first response should be to control the amount of time you spend listening to your friend's monologues.

Her next recommendation is less felicitous. She says that you should address the issue openly and honestly, by calling your friend out. She would have you declare: "...I feel that our conversations are never about me and my life. I miss the back and forth we used to have."

Here I must demur. Complaining about how you do not express yourself sufficiently sounds whiny. Your friend might very well come back at you by saying that, after all, it is up to you to talk about you and your life.

For all we know, she may be filling gaps left by a new-found reticence on your part.

If that is not the problem, perhaps something else is going on. Someone who feels compelled to talk about herself all the time is likely to be in some distress.

She may be using a smokescreen of excessive verbiage to avoid addressing an important issue. On the chance that that is true, then you should try something that is quite opposite to what Isaacs has recommended.

You might start asking some probing questions of your own, even suggesting that you sense that something is wrong, and that you will be happy to hear her out or even to try to help her if she wants to tell you what it is. You should add that if she does not want to do so, you understand.

Isaacs then addresses another problem that should be recognizable. It is a variation on the first issue, because it involves another way that reciprocity breaks down.

It is worth emphasizing that friendships involve reciprocal exchanges, whether of information and feeling, or even of gifts. Once a friendship becomes too one-sided, on any level, it is headed for trouble.

So, now you are dealing with a friend who asks too many probing and personal questions. To the point where you feel like you are being interrogated on a witness stand.

Isaacs first recommends trying to defuse the tension by using humor: "Asked and answered, counselor." Some other possibilities would include: "I refuse to answer on the grounds that I may incriminate myself," or "May I consult my attorney before responding."

These ironic comments should allow your friend to gain some awareness about what she is doing. That is surely better than a direct confrontation.

For my part I would not try to solve the problem by being open and honest. I would not take up Isaacs' other suggestion: "Hey, you're asking a lot of questions. I don't like it. Back off."

To me this feels excessive; it borders on rudeness. It sounds like you are closing the door on the friendship.

A better approach would be to maintain decorum and civility.

When you are being interrogated you can certainly try to change the subject. You might ignore the probing questions and introduce a topic from politics or television or celebrity gossip.

You might also say that you would rather not discuss the situation she is asking about, but that if there is any news she will be the first to know.

If we want to analyze the situation, it might have happened that your friend is asking a lot of personal questions because you have ceased contributing to the conversation as you normally do. Perhaps you have given the impression that you have pulled away from her.

If that is the case, you can offer that you have been preoccupied with a very difficult situation at work, but that, unfortunately, it is confidential and you cannot discuss it with anyone, even with your closest friends.

Sometimes the situation is more difficult. Perhaps your friend is asking more probing questions because she wants to get closer to you than you want to get to her.

These situations are always awkward. They should not be greeted with: "Back off." But if you do not see any chance of reciprocating her attentions, you will probably need to pull back yourself. Politely, of course.

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