Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q. My friends will often call me when they have something specific to do (like an event or activity that I can be a “plus one” to). These friend dates usually lack in-depth conversation and I often end up feeling more like a utility than a friend. How can I change this pattern? Am I doing something wrong? —C.B.
I commend you for valuing intentionality in your friendships and for expecting the same from your friends. The Gottman Institute’s research has shown that those who have the highest expectations for their relationships tend to experience much more depth and quality in them. It is also noteworthy that you are paying attention to something that is bothering you instead of ignoring it.
The last part of your question is where I’d have you begin. Engage in some honest self-reflection, which means not so much, “Am I doing something wrong?” but rather, “Is there anything about this that I have power to change?” Try being proactive in planning activities for you and your friends. Consider inviting your friends to join you for shared activities that are more appealing to you. Suggest interactions that might be more conversation-focused, such as book discussions or attending a local political or religious event together.
Assuming that you are doing your part to drive more meaningful activities, you can also let your friends know how you feel about the “plus one” invitations. I encourage you to share your concerns with them, but in a very focused way that relates to a fundamental finding from John Gottman’s research. One of Gottman’s key observations is that the way we speak has a huge impact on another’s abilities to listen to us. Added to this is the observation that the way a conversation begins is highly predictive of not only how that conversation will go, but also how the relationship as a whole will go.
We call this three-step way of bringing something up the “gentle start-up.” I think of this conversation starter as a three-legged stool that won’t support weight if any one leg is missing. The gentle start-up is the antidote to the relationship poisons of criticism and contempt. It also greatly reduces the likelihood that the other poisons of defensiveness and stonewalling will come back when your listener responds.
Here’s a suggestion for approaching your friends with the concern you mention in your question.
“I feel a little frustrated about some of our recent times together, and I’d like to suggest we change it up a bit.”
Let me elaborate on the three parts of this gentle start-up.
1. “I feel…”
State an actual feeling that branches off of one of the primary emotions of mad, sad, glad, afraid, or ashamed/embarrassed, not “I feel that…” or “I feel like…”, which would instantly take you into expressing a THOUGHT, not a feeling.
2. “About what…”
Try describing what you are experiencing, using your five senses — “I heard this…,” “I saw that…” Avoid explaining or interpreting what something means to you at this point, and keep this part as succinct as possible. You will overwhelm your listener if there are too many words here. Avoid describing motives or intent of your partner or even sharing what you THINK their motives/intentions were. Talk about your experience as would a reporter at the scene, not as an editor who is writing an opinion.
3. “And I need…”
Give your listener a specific request that is doable, time sensitive, and small that will give you even a little bit of relief from the feeling you shared above. Without sharing what you need, you risk feeling unattended to.
An added benefit of the gentle start-up is that by sharing your feelings and asking for what you want, you are actually inviting more depth in your friendship, which is, after all, the quality you are seeking.
Your friends’ responses to you will tell you quite a bit about the quality and depth of your relationship when you share your concerns in such an intentional way.
If they respond defensively or don’t even respond at all, then it may be time to begin searching for new friends with whom you can enjoy depth and meaningfulness. If they respond positively and make some adjustments in your friend dates, then you’ll know these are strong friendships worth keeping and nurturing.
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