How To Become A Better Friend

There’s a saying: you’re friends with whom you’ve learned to listen, when you’ve heard what you needed to hear, when you’ve given up your ego.

I first began taking a class called “Relationships” in 1993, at a local college: two weeks of small group conversation and study of human dynamics. By 1996, I had dropped out of school for a full-time job as a therapist, so it was really just for two more years. But the class has always had a profound impact on my life. Over the years, I’ve cultivated relationships with more people than I can count. It’s my practice to give my time and energy, and I try to be a good listener every time I can. I always look for good opportunities for connection.

Some of my best relationships, even today, come from talking to people who don’t have my background, or are a bit different from me.  People from many of America’s most diverse groups – Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, American Indian, Arab, Muslim, Jewish, gay, straight, transgendered – have had good conversations with me and have learned about how better to relate to others.

This is not a call for the “good-hearted” to take the lead, but to look for the opportunities (often hidden, but just as real) that can serve you, now , better than you have ever done before. Some of those opportunities could be small and easy – like asking for help, or offering something for free, or volunteering in your community – and I hope they are. Others, like starting a company, or doing something on your own, can be more daunting. The thing I try to do most of all is be honest – and have the respect of others – if I find something I like, and I can make it work .

This is what I will teach you today; you do not need to know it all, but it is a big part of a healthy relationship.

1. How to listen.

When I’m talking to someone, I’m always listening. I don’t hear them speak the exact opposite of what I want them to say. I really want to learn about her or him. That is a natural skill, or instinct, for social living: we all like to learn about people we like. That is the heart of social life, for people and for animals. You are a lot more observant when listening, I think, than most people realize. We notice things in real time. What most people miss is that the moment we are conscious of something is the moment we know it exists.

2. How to accept a change.

You want to change someone’s behavior, but you also want to change their values. How do you do it? It must be your business, and yours alone, not their business and theirs alone. You may need to make difficult choices: you may have to be right. But you will learn about a person, and you will learn what they value, and you will be able to trust that. This is a lot harder than you may think. It is the one thing I find the most difficult about helping others. I feel like I have to work so hard not to hurt, or anger, or make someone mad, but when I work with others, it is the opposite. I can be vulnerable. I want to find out about a situation and be able to let it go. But when it comes to you, my friends, you must learn how you want everyone to feel. You can do this as a matter of life and not as a matter of business, as we all do. The difference is that you can let them love you and accept you for who you are, and if you do that, it will change you as well. In fact, by changing yourself, so can you change them.

3. When to say you’re sorry and when to say you’re not.