YOU’RE AN EXCELLENT FRIEND!
(IT’S A SKILL
When I was nine years old, I decided to learn the flute. It was a challenge, given my lack of musical ability, delight in skipping lessons and refusal to practise. That flute spent most of its life resting against the wall, abandoned and untouched, while I got on with my childhood. I barely raised that instrument to my lips in a year, yet was bitterly disappointed to discover I wasn’t a prodigy. We so often treat friendship the same way, with lackadaisical effort and a whopping expectation of success. We believe friendship is one of those innate human abilities; something we’re born able to do. But as someone I count as a friend, Dr Andrew Solomon, psychiatrist and author of The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy Of Depression, so succinctly put it, “Friendship is a human instinct, but it is also a skill – one that can be learnt and, on that, can be taught.”
A little audit of your childhood experiences in the playground should be enough to remind you that friendship can be difficult and confusing. It’s a skill to be learnt over a lifetime – often the hard way, with the sting of social rejection or the ache of loneliness. As our brains develop, right up to that time our frontal lobe is settling into place at the beginning of adulthood, we’re still trying to understand what’s required of us when it comes to friendship. Loyalty, compassion, love, encouragement, honesty and joy are the standard tenets of decent friendship – why should we assume such glorious things would come naturally, without work?
Aristotle believed friendship wasn’t for everyone. He said it was a skill we must work on over a lifetime; that it’s not for the faint-hearted, lazy or self-obsessed. I agree. Friendship is something we must proactively work at, if we’re to be any good at it at all. It’s one of the loveliest things a person can do, so of course it must be earned.
Friendships require a decent investment of time, for a start. A recent Groupon survey found that 66 per cent of Australian women say they don’t spend enough time with their friends, which means you’re not alone in the struggle to find the hours between work, romance, laundry, family dinners, childcare and Pilates to actually be there for the people you adore. And those people deserve kindness, love and empathy, the likes of which inspire us to listen and respond tactfully to their concerns about life. Female friendships in particular are made up of confessions, vulnerabilities and gossip. They are, at their best, incandescent and uplifting, like no other relationship in our lives. But they take work, and commitment, and emotional investment.
So how do you learn to be a good friend? Begin by following my dad’s dogged advice and ask questions. Whether it’s a new friend or an old one, asking questions is the quickest way to build intimacy. Revealing something about yourself is another important short cut to building trust and compassion between two people. Listening with intent is a fine skill – one you have to practise and deliberately cultivate. It’s not about waiting for your turn to speak; it’s about conscientiously taking in what the other person has to say. We are so often in such a rush over our mugs of coffee or glasses of rosé that we forget to stop and truly listen to each other.
Then, of course, there are the practicalities of friendship: making your presence in someone’s life conspicuous when they need it, whether that’s by delivering chicken soup to a bereft household or lighting up their phone with little Whatsapp messages of support. It’s knowing the tiny details of someone’s life so you can anticipate their needs: how they take their tea, their favourite song, their comfort food of choice, their mother’s phone number, their favourite rom-com and what they might need to hear in a moment of doubt or insecurity or grief. It’s about trading intimacies, demonstrating loyalty, truly listening and actively making someone a priority in your life. Practise all these lovely skills and you’ll be a better friend than I ever was a flautist. Promise.
BOOKMARK: The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver ($29.99, Harpercollins) is out now