ELLE (Australia) - - Front Page -

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

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