By Alex Van Tol
You know friends are good for you. You know you’ll live longer with a bundle of buddies. You know you need people to support you when things spiral. So why, on a Tuesday evening, are you sitting on the couch watching cats playing patty cake on YouTube? It’s high time you put down the mouse (oh, good one) and went back to the basics: your face-to-face friends. Because that’s where you’ll find bigger, brighter joy — and better nourishment for your soul.
WHY FRIENDSHIP MATTERS
“Loneliness and isolation are reaching epidemic levels,” says Victoria counsellor Matthew Gardner. “At least half of my clients are seeing me for issues that would probably take care of themselves if they had a supportive network of friends.”
Our nervous systems respond to empathy and connection, Gardner adds, and we suffer “dis-ease” if we don’t have those. He points out that as herd animals, isolation from the community has historically been used as one of the biggest human punishments. Being human means being interdependent, agrees non-violent-communication facilitator and trainer Mitch Miyagawa, who leads workshops in Victoria and from his Gabriola Island home. “Much as I want to be independent, I can’t meet all my own needs,” he adds. “There are these universal longings; I can’t fulfil those on my own.”
But instead of focusing on “friendship,” Miyagawa asks himself how he can continually engage the people around him in somehow helping him to follow those longings while also helping them to do the same.
“I recognize that if they’re not getting what they want, then I’m not going to get what I want,” says the soft-spoken father of two. “I want to think of friends as the people we’re with in this project of helping to support each other to meet certain needs.”
Following Miyagawa’s reasoning a little farther, we can see that different friends can help us meet different needs. That takes a bit of pressure off the “best friend” ideal — that one person we imagine as our 100 per cent go-to. Miyagawa suggests looking at your friends’ strengths: Who’s great for having fun with? Who do you connect with over a shared sense of purpose? Who’s best for those where-is-my-relationship-going conversations?
“I don’t need to get stuck on any one person doing all those things,” says Miyagawa. “As soon as you get stuck on what a friend should do — be loyal, call when they know you’re having a hard time, spend time with you once a week — you feel disempowered, or you suffer feelings of betrayal.” Better to spread your needs around and get them met by a few different people. Just be sure to return the favour.
LEND ME YOUR EAR
The cardinal rule of getting people interested in you is to make them comfortable. “Becoming a friend is the process of being willing to suspend your own insecurity and create a safe container for someone else,” says Carmen Spagnola, registered clinical hypnotherapist. “You need to pull your functioning up and be generous enough to walk up to someone and strike up a conversation and be interested in them.” Put the focus on the other.
The best way to do this is to ask questions. Almost everybody is willing to talk about themselves. “Saving someone from awkwardness at functions is one of the best ways to empathize,” says Spagnola.
Once they get started, pick up on the little threads of info and ask about those. Share a bit about yourself to show what you have in common and to keep the talk going, but don’t talk about yourself too much. The people we tend to think of as the best conversationalists are those who ask the questions that keep the talk rolling. Look around at your next dinner party and see if you agree.
When you’re engaged in a conversation, give it your full attention. Often we feel self-conscious, so our minds drift: Is there spinach between my teeth? or What do I say next? Keep your focus on your friend’s words. That way you can nimbly catch the conversation ball and lob it back in the form of an agreement, a question or a tiny anecdote to carry things deeper.
This is an important thing for men especially, who are trained to be leaders and therefore tend to dominate conversations — or else they hold back entirely, unwilling to self-disclose. A good rule of thumb is to listen 80 per cent of the time, talk 20 per cent. Resist the temptation to fix or advise. At bottom, all of us are dying to be heard. You can give that gift every time you speak with someone.
IS VICTORIA HARD TO BREAK INTO?
Maybe you’ve heard this silly rumour? And because you’ve heard it, you believe it. And if you believe it, well, that shapes what you see. So shift your perspective. Remember that we’re all still human, and we all still need to be seen, heard and valued. That’s all you need to break in here. That, some eye contact and laughter, and a willingness to share your own story. What are your values? “Follow these, and they will lead you to places where like-minded people gather,” says Victoria counsellor Matthew Gardner. “Common ground is the fertile soil where connection grows.”
Find your people through a meetup group. Join a rowing team or show up on Sunday morning at the yacht club and get picked up as extra crew. Dance. Borrow someone’s dog and go to the off-leash areas. Volunteer — often it takes a few times to meet and talk with someone to know whether there’s a spark, so a job is a perfect path to friendship. Go for beers with your barber. Talk to your librarian. Love is all around you. Go give some.
ACKNOWLEDGE AND CELEBRATE
Be open with your admiration. If you think that the woman ahead of you in the coffee line has the most gorgeous hair ever, say it. You’re going to totally reshape her day — and yours. Tell your friends what you appreciate about them. Acknowledge their excellent characteristics. Give gratitude. It doesn’t have to be corny. All you need to say is, “You’re so measured and respectful in the way you deal with your teenagers. I admire that about you.” Full stop. You’ll be surprised at how good it feels — and how easy it is to do. Once you start being open about what you like in other people, you will begin to feel your power centre shift a little.
Making friends in adulthood takes some work. Just lead with your heart, and look for ways to be that light — that safe container — for someone else’s soul. Pretty soon you’ll have the support you need, too.
MEN NEED FRIENDS, TOO!
Men are largely socialized to avoid intimate friendship with each other. This negative socialization is the biggest hurdle to forming meaningful connections. As men get older, the demands of marriage and a career take over, leaving them with no one to share intimacy with other than their significant others. “Sometimes they need to connect deeply with someone else,” says counsellor Bruce Chambers, who runs Tools for Building Friendship, a men’s friendship group at Citizens’ Counselling.
“Women seem to be better at it. They hang onto and nurture their friendships through different stages of life, whereas men — because we’re socialized to be cold and strong and not ask for help — let these things go and think we don’t need them, when in fact we do.”
Chambers walks guys of all ages through sharing stories about their lives, giving and receiving compliments, making eye contact and practising the small talk that paves the way to deeper connection.
The greatest challenge men need to overcome, Chambers says, is the constraining nature of male socialization: the strong pressure not to ask for help, look other men in the eye or approach men in a friendly way.
“It’s easy enough for a man to ask a woman out or to approach a sales prospect,” says Chambers, “but it is petrifying to reach out to another man for friendship. We have to relax these rigid roles.”
Get to know other guys with side-by-side activities: watching the kids play basketball or taking them fishing. Chat about meaningless stuff. (Chambers recommends practising small talk with everyone you meet, so it feels comfortable when it counts.) The more times you bump into your new pal and chat, the easier it’ll be to go for a hike or a beer and open up about your life.