Friendship: Who needs It? How do we get it? How do we keep it?
In this second part of the Friendship Series, and its presence in the workplace, we consider what it takes to create a friendship and the harder task of keeping a friendship vibrant.
My Father’s View
My father, a truly wise man said to me in my early teens, when someone I thought to be a close friend abandoned his relationship with me in the interest of aligning with others more popular than I was, he said “Son, if at the end of your lifetime you can fill the fingers of one hand with those you truly consider to be a friend, you will be a lucky man. Real friends are as rare a hen’s teeth.”
A close friend of mine, George Swan, passed away a few months back. In the time before his death things were tough. George shared the one thing that made his end of life journey a bit easier; it was his friendships. He said, “No man of substance can or should be without friends. People need other people. We are, after all, social animals. We Tribe. We can all trace our origins back to a Tribe.”
These comments together got me thinking. We do need friends. Life’s journey would be hard without them. But, Friendships are hard to grasp and harder to hold on to. They take effort. It isn’t easy to develop friendship and it is a real challenge to keep them vibrant.
Friendships, as we unfortunately and too freely define them, are seeded, cultivated, and nurtured in a growth cycle. They don’t just happen. But too often we, as human beings, shy-away from the work of intimate connection it takes to create and maintain them. In shying-away, we create an emotional vacuum. Often we become aware of that vacuum when we most need it filled. At that point, we do not have the assets to fill it. My friend Mike Enriquez says, “Real friendships are forged in the fire of hard times. You don’t really know if you have a friend indeed until a hardship tests your individual metal.” Maybe the handful of real friends we actually enjoy at the end of our lives is a reflection how rare and precious “friends” truly are.
What is “Friendship”?
Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people. Friendship is a stronger form of interpersonal bond than an association. It is fair to say that the vast majority of folks we work with are “associates”, a term now used by many major companies to describe their employees. One would expect that workplace friendships are then as rare as any relationship involving deep exchanges of affection.
Although there are many forms of friendship, some of which may vary from place to place, certain characteristics are present in the myriad types of friendship. Such characteristics include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, altruism, mutual understanding and compassion, enjoyment of each other’s company, trust, and the ability to be oneself, express one’s feelings, and make mistakes without fear of judgment from the friend.
Friendship can be described as a personal relationship that is positively reciprocated. In order for a friend to truly be a friend, he or she has to also believe you are their friend also. Have you ever noticed that when you like someone it seems they like you too? Or is it the case that realizing someone likes you, you like them back. Which comes first the chicken or the egg?
The Difference between Being Friends and Acting Friendly
When you are friendly with someone, you are approachable and polite but you don’t actually have to like the person. You may be willing to spend some time with them if it suits you to do so. A friend is someone with whom you choose to build a relationship. They are somebody whom you like and enjoy spending time with. Friendships grow from CRT (Communication, Relationship and Trust). CRT is a process. People communicate in a friendly manner. This friendly communication builds relationship. Depth in relationship, created over time, engender trust. Trust is an important part of the foundation of every healthy relationship. Since healthy relationships are a two-person job, it’s important that both parties are consistent—parties in a relationship must keep their word and promises in order to improve trust.
Some people are instantly trusting of new people and accept them into their heart without question. I once had a member of a hospital medical staff say to me, “You, Mr. CEO, have to earn my trust.” To which I responded, “You know I choose to grant people my trust and hope they never make me wish I had not.” In the same manner, some of us bestow our “friendship’” immediately on those we encounter. Others of us speak of our new contacts as acquaintances long before we speak of them as our friends. Different cultures approach friendship differently. While living almost five years in India, I learned that people are on the whole quiet friendly.
Some people might act “friendly” with someone but not consider them a friend, at all, at least not initially. These people need to get know someone better before they ever consider labeling them as a friend. Honestly, I am the first of the two types and my wife, Susan, is the latter.
Friendships Don’t Just Happen
In her book Friendships Don’t Just Happen, Shasta Nelson shares a great anecdote based on a general misconception: that real friendship just happens.
She tells the story, “When I was new to San Francisco eight years ago, I remember standing at a café window on Polk Street watching a group of women inside, huddled around a table laughing. Like the puppy dog at the pound, I looked through the glass, wishing someone would pick me to be theirs. I had a phone full of far-flung friends’ phone numbers, but I didn’t yet know anyone I could just sit and laugh with in a café. It hit me how very hard the friendship process is. I’m an outgoing, socially comfortable woman with a long line of good friendships behind me. And yet I stood there feeling very lonely. And insecure. And exhausted at just the idea of how far I was from that reality.”
No, unfortunately, friendships don’t just happen.
Friendships may not happen automatically, but what we crave about them sure seems to! We all want to belong—that need to be connected to others is an inherent desire. We live our entire lives trying to fit in, be known, attract acceptance, and experience intimacy. We desperately want to have others care about us. And you might think that, as we mature, this need for friendship diminishes. It doesn’t. In fact many social psychologists and anthropologists believe the need grows stronger.
Needing Friends is in Our Nature; the Exception Proves the Rule
Evolutionary psychologists have long theorized that friendship has roots in our early dependence on others for survival. Friends were essential to hunting and gathering, to putting food on the table. Across the millennia, over a table, eating meal, friends and families have been built and broken. Why is dinner with friends often more laughter filled and less fraught than a meal with family? Although some say it’s because we choose our friends, it’s also because we expect less of them than we do of relatives. While we’re busy scrutinizing our romantic relationships and family dramas, our friends are quietly but strongly influencing every aspect of our lives.
With people marrying later—and often not at all—and more families having just one child, friendships are gaining importance in the 21st Century. Evidence suggests that friends have a greater hand in our development and well-being than do our romantic partners and relatives. The skills needed to make good friends are the same skills required to be successful in life.
Oh, the next time someone tells you they don’t needs friends, reflect for just a moment, without prejudice, you will notice then that you have always considered them a bit of an “odd duck” It is the truly unusual persons who declares that they do not need a friend.
“First Fist Friends”
I am fortunate to be able to say that I have at this stage in my life filled the fingers of one hand with real friends and I am deep into completing the filling of my second. In truth, I stopped thinking about the process when my first hand became a solid fist. These are friends who will always be friends. One of my “First Fist Friends” is Joe Kleinbauer. Joe was on my Board of Directors when I was CEO of Sunbury Community Hospital in Sunbury, PA almost twenty years ago. Joe and I spent an intense three years together in a hospital turn-around and in a series of community development initiatives. I have not spoken much with Joe over the past ten years. We will go months, if not years between communications. Yet whenever we do communicate, the dynamic is rich and authentic. I remember Joe once saying to me, “The key to a lasting, enduring friendship is a lack of expectation. If you do not create in yourself an expectation for another human being they cannot disappoint you. When there is no unilateral expectation, you are able to be friends simply because you enjoy and value one another.” I can honestly say that this single comment by Joe has shaped every other friendship I have.
What is the basis of the influence Joe had on how I view friendship? My relationship with Joe opened a window of understanding. I saw that what Joe and I enjoyed was the ability to authentically communicate. Out of that ability to communicate, to share and understand, we built relationship. From the depth of relationship, the understanding of one another, we built a trust. We knew that what we saw, what we heard, what we felt was sincere and as unfiltered as human beings ever really allow themselves to get. The simple truth is we all need this kind of relationship, virtually from birth and we never stop.
Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need
“…the great lesson is that the sacred is in the ordinary that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.” ― Abraham Maslow
This quote by the eminent social psychologist, Abraham Maslow suggest that passage through the need for social affiliation from survival and security to eventually achieve and maintain self-actualization is requisite. We are, as George Swan reminded me, social animals. We instinctively Tribe.
Maslow would argue that to deny the need for friends is at best a defense mechanism for not having any. At worst the notion is a complete and utter delusion. If we are honest with ourselves, we have cultivated friends as far back in our life as we can recollect. To the extent we may have even entered into a hiatus from time to time, it is likely because a misplaced label identifying an association as a friendship has brought us pain and we are in avoidance. This does not obviate our fundamental need for “friends” or even associates.
We Need Friendships at All Stages of Our Life
Our climb through The Hierarchy of Need (our core human needs) never ends and we can always regress back through it. Friends see each other through the process of growing up (and healthy people never stop growing up), shape each other’s interests and outlooks, and, painful though it may be, expose each other’s rough edges.
Late childhood and adolescence, in particular, are marked by the need to create distance between oneself and one’s parents while forging a unique identity within a group of peers, but friends continue to influence us, in ways big and small, straight through old age.
Perpetually busy parents who turn to friends—for intellectual stimulation, emotional support, and a good dose of merriment—find a perfect outlet to relieve the pressures of raising children. In the office setting, talking to a friend for just a few minutes can refresh one’s memory. While we romanticize the idea of the lone genius, friendship often spurs creativity in the arts and sciences. And in recent studies, having close friends was found to influence disease management and improve health status. Interestingly, in at least the study referenced, the availability of a spouse did not produce the same beneficial results.
Carlin Flora, in her book Friendfluence – The surprising way friends make us who we are, created the word “friendfluence” to capture the effect that friends have on our lives:
“Friendfluence is the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends—past and present—play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives”. Whether we realize it or not, our friends have shaped who we are today. We are even the product of the friends who are no longer our friends.
Friendfluence affects us in more ways than we realize.
Here are some reasons – despite whatever experiences we have had in the past we will always return to friendship-building if we are a healthy human-being and we give ourselves the chance
- Friends can help you define your priorities. People tend to pick friends who are similar to them. This fact falls under the general proximity rule of close relationships, in that like tends to attract like. Because we fall prey so easily into this similarity trap, it is important to try to stretch ourselves to learn from some of those opposites.
- Having friends can help us get more friends. People tend to like others who have a reputation for being nice and helpful, and we like people who like us. If we want to be the type of person who attracts new friends, these qualities will help get us on our way toward building our social group. Once we have more friends, we’ll be able to enjoy some of those perks of friendship.
- Close friends support us through thick and thin. To take the most advantage of friendfluence, we should put effort into our closest friendships. Although being friendly can get us more friends, we don’t need hundreds to help us through life. We may have to prune our friendship tree as we get older to be sure that we give enough attention to the ones who will really matter for our well-being.
- You’re less lonely when you have friends. The worst kind of friendfluence, according to Flora, is a complete lack of friends. Loneliness is painful, especially when we are living with loneliness for a prolonged period of time. This is yet another reason to put time, energy, and attention into finding and cultivating a close circle of friends.
- Friends matter to you, regardless of gender. Although much is made of the difference between male friends, female friends, and male-female friend pairs, all share the qualities of having the potential to influence our life. If we restrict ourselves to one certain type of friendship, we may be missing out on bonds that transcend gender boundaries.
- Couple friendships can help your own relationship. People experiencing similar life events can often provide the most valuable support to each other. Unfortunately, some couples withdraw from their friendships when their personal relationship turns serious. We can benefit both from maintaining your separate friendships, but also from sharing with the couples who are experiencing transitions such as becoming parents, raising teenagers, and helping older family members. Friends can also help us alleviate our work-related stress. Even though we may be stretched to the limit time-wise, the investment we make in these friendships will be worth the psychological benefits.
- Friends can give us a reality check. Who but our closest friends will tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth, sans filters or withholds? Because friends know us well, they are able to see things that we can’t, and aren’t afraid to share their dose of reality with us. Of course, friends can also make us miserable. However, the ones who care about us have a perspective on our behavior that no one else can completely see. As Flora points out: “friends are better at describing our behavioral traits than we are”.
- Banding together with friends can help you effect social change. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fight for a cause, raise money for charity, or even just make a few small improvements in our community on our own. Friends are the first step, Flora points out, to building successful social movements. Facebook provides one way to enlist the support of thousands of people. At a less grandiose level, people are more likely to engage in helping and altruistic behavior at the urging of their close friends.
- Being a friend helps our friends. “Friendfluence” works in two directions. Not only do we benefit from its many perks, but by being a good friend we are helping those closest to us. “Being a friend is a great honor and responsibility, so treat your friends carefully”. If we are aware of how we’re affecting our friends, we’ll work harder to stay close to them which, in turn, will benefit us as well. Being a good friend also includes asking them for help when we need it. Giving someone the gift of being influential can be a joy we pass along to our friends.
So You Don’t Have Friends?
In the past couple of years, I have had some interesting experiences around “friends”, I have gained a few, lost a few and renewed a few. Never once have I doubted that they mattered. Frankly I don’t know what I’d do without them. They have made my “Highs” higher and my “Lows” more manageable.
It seems that as hard as it is to get “friends” it may be even harder to keep them. I found a lot of information on the internet about how to develop friendships and why we need them. But what I really thought was helpful were the hundreds of pieces that talked about what we that might adversely impact our ability to hold on to the friendships we do have and do greatly value. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy.
Carlin Flora shares some of the reasons we don’t always keep the friends we have. I found her list interesting and think you may as well. If you don’t have many friends, it’s important to consider the possible reasons why.
- You Complain a Lot –
If you’re constantly complaining about stuff (remember, no one wants to or should “Sweat the Small Stuff”), people won’t feel better in your company. They’ll run from you. Complaining gets old fast. Share a positive attitude and look for more interesting topics to discuss rather than what’s going wrong in your life. People will find you refreshing.
- You Ditch Your Old Friends When You Meet New Friends –
If you’re guilty of ditching your friends every time you meet someone new, it’s likely your old friends won’t sit around and wait to hear back from you. If they are smart and appreciate themselves, they’ll move on without you. Plan on keeping your old friends and spending time with them or do you and them a favor and declare you no longer have an interest in them. They’ll figure it out soon enough if you don’t. Save yourselves the pain of lingering separation.
- You’re Selfish –
It is always all about you? That gets old fast? Friendship is reciprocal; it requires you to give sometimes, even when you don’t feel like it. If you’re only willing to do what you want, when you want it, it’s unlikely that your friends will tolerate you and only you for very long.
- You Don’t Care About Your Friends –
This and being selfish go hand-in-hand. If you don’t care what’s happening in your friends’ lives, if you don’t stop to ask your friends what’s happening with them, they might not keep you around. Why would they? Show true interest in how your friends are doing. Demonstrate empathy. People want to know you care about them.
- You Stir Up Drama –
Are you someone who needs things to be broken? If things are just going too well, what do you have to talk about? If you stir up trouble, people will eventually shy away. Be that person who lifts people up. Most of us do not need or want the drama. If you blame others, don’t keep secrets, or try to irritate people on purpose, you’ll likely have difficulty convincing people why they should stick around.
- You Keep Score –
Friendship isn’t about keeping score. It is about doing what is appropriate in the moment. Keeping score makes the relationship inauthentic. In true friendships, equity and balance occur naturally or it is natural that they do not. In either case, it just shouldn’t matter. People know when the score is being kept and it makes things uncomfortable. Don’t go there. If it (the relationship) isn’t working without keeping score, every will know “that score” intuitively; the friendship will end anyway. Be willing to give unconditionally.
- You Get Jealous –
Are you “Green with Envy? Does it bother you when a friend does better than you in some way? We all “compare”. But, it can’t really matter. If it does the friendship is in jeopardy. It’s important to celebrate with your friends and feel happy for them when they succeed. If you’re always feeling jealous, your attitude will likely shine through, even if you try to hide it.
- You Expect Too Much From Friends –
Expectations will kill a friendship faster than anything else. Expectations come from within you. You can have them and the other party may never even know, much less act to meet them. If you expect your friends to always be available or always meet your needs, you’ll be disappointed. Your friends will hurt your feelings sometimes and will likely disappoint you. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good people. Practice forgiveness when your feelings get hurt; you will be better for it.
- You Gossip –
If you talk about other when you are with a friend, the friend will quickly realize that you are talking in the same way about them when you are with others. It’s a fact. If you want to keep your friends, don’t talk negatively about other people or spread rumors. Show that you can be trusted to respect people’s privacy and you will build intimacy and trust in your friendships.
- You Bully Your Friends –
Friendship is a peer-to-peer dynamic in its purest sense. It is not one person up, the other person down. Never act like you are top dog. Unless the other party is a masochist, they will eventually run from you. No one wants to be “beaten-up” in a relationship. Be someone who is fun to be around; be someone who makes others feel good about themselves. It’s okay (even very important) to be assertive with people, but make sure you don’t cross the line into behaving aggressively. Respect other people’s rights and work on developing healthy relationships.
- You Don’t Get Out Enough –
Of course, there is also a good chance that not having friends isn’t related to a specific character flaw. Instead, it might just be because you haven’t had the opportunity to meet people whose company you enjoy. If that’s the case, create opportunities to meet other people based on your interests and activities and be willing to take a chance on striking up a conversation with a stranger. It just might turn into a lifelong friendship.
You Need a Friend
The upshot of all of this is, we need friends – even in the workplace – and they need us. It doesn’t take much skill to cultivate this close and fascinating type of human bond, but it does take some effort. As Carlin Flora shows us that effort will clearly pay off in helping you lead a more fulfilling life.