‘Listen as well as talk – and try not to interrupt’: how to be a better friend

Friends are the family you choose. Kindred spirits, your tribe. I learned this, aged 14, when I was hit by the sudden realisation, while sorting laundry, that I’d never get the relationship I craved with a sibling who was chalk to my cheese. I decided to redirect that energy into friends. I didn’t realise, as I folded those pants, what a positive shift I was making: friends not only shield you from so much of life’s shrapnel, but share, and even augment, the joy.

The past year has challenged all of that. Although on the whole people seem to be friendlier to each other, opportunities for making new friends have been scarce. For those who are tech-averse or prefer to do things side by side with people, keeping friendships going has been doubly difficult.

“The lack of structure makes it easy to let people slip out of our thinking,” says psychotherapist Noel Bell. “When we see people at work, or at the gym, we have that spontaneous interaction with them.” We don’t get that in lockdown. For those comfortable with technology, Bell suggests having virtual hangouts or joining an online class together (a friend has one where they sit and make things on Zoom, and talk only occasionally). Alternatively, sending a handwritten letter, or just “making concrete plans to do things together in the future”, can really help; doing the latter lets people know that you’re thinking of them, even if you can’t see them now – and we all need something to look forward to.

Sets of teeth chattering
‘If you don’t like video calls, then text, email or send a letter instead.’ Photograph: Kellie French/The Guardian

I don’t like video calls; instead, I speak, text or email. With my headset on, I can carry out a mindless activity – ironing or baking – while I chat to old school friends, almost as if they’re with me in person. With other friends, I’ve taken to sending a letter (using lined paper to stop my writing looking like a cardiograph readout) or little things by post – usually chocolate. With friends farther afield, where the temptation is to feel you’ve been out of touch for so long that you owe them an essay, we have implemented a “200 words or under” email catchup, which is all you need to start again.

If you’ve let some friendships slip and want to rekindle them, start with a gentle re-entry. You want an inquiry that doesn’t put the onus on them to fill in the gaps but steps gingerly. They might have had a difficult year and you don’t want to bounce in. If texting/emailing, go for something like: “Sorry I’ve not been in touch, no reflection on how often I’ve thought of you, be great to chat soon, is everything OK with you?” You can go into more detail about yourself if you write a letter, but be mindful that they might have suffered loss. Personally, I would not call as a first resort after a long period of silence – it puts that person on the spot. But if that’s the only way you communicated, then remember to ask if this is a good time for them to talk before launching in. How they respond may tell you a lot about where they’re at with you.

However you meet up, there are some evergreen rules for making and keeping friends. “Don’t be an energy zapper,” Bell advises. “Be an energy enhancer.” Especially now, it’s easy to go into a spiral of moaning. It’s precisely because so many of us can find something to complain about that it’s best kept to a minimum. This doesn’t mean you have to be happy-clappy, but good friendship can be as much about what you leave out as what you give.

Sets of teeth chattering
‘Never let rejection put you off making friends: most people want to be liked.’ Photograph: Kellie French/The Guardian

Bell recommends you aim for “a healthy flow of give and take. Listen as well as talk, and try not to interrupt. Make a point of asking people how they are, and listen to their answer.” But no one likes someone who is stuck on transmit; if all you do is listen, you’ll end every conversation feeling exhausted – and wondering what’s in it for you.

One of the reasons friendships stall or never blossom is that it’s easy to think no one will want to hear from you. “Try to silence your inner critic,” Bell says; you may think you’re not interesting or funny enough, but 99% of the time people are more concerned with how they came across than how you did –they have their own inner critic, too.

I have never let rejection put me off making friends: most people want to be liked, so be brave. If they don’t reciprocate, that isn’t an indication of how all future friendships will go, just that one. I don’t find it hard to remember, say, birthdays or when people are getting test results (at last, something I am blessed with!); but if you do, write things in your diary and get in contact then. Such connections consolidate friendships because they make it personal: you’ve seen that person, you’ve listened, you know what’s happening in their life.

While friendship ebbs and flows, it should never become so one-sided that you feel used. If you feel as if you’ve given blood after you’ve put the phone down to someone, or they never answer your calls, expect you always to initiate or – my personal favourite – buoy up their own poor self-esteem by trying to erode yours, it’s time to rethink. I call these my portcullis moments. Crap friendships are worse than none: few things make you feel more lonely and wretched. So redirect your energy to those friendships that make you feel good.


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