How many times has this happened to you?

You’re hanging out with a friend, sharing tea, a beer, or a glass of wine, when the behavior of a third friend—let’s call her or him "Alex"—becomes the topic of conversation. You begin analyzing Alex’s new girl/boyfriend, or listing the pros and cons of her new apartment, the disadvantages of his new job, or even commiserating over a recent incident that Alex was embroiled in. But then the conversation turns intimate, as your friend leans closer and begins to confide in you about a recent incident they had with Alex.

Suddenly you’re more alert; more engaged.

The conversation is about to become juicy. But at the same time, it threatens to become uncomfortable. Part of you already knows that the story your friend is launching into—which you undeniably want to hear—will likely contain an implicit appeal to "take sides."

And, as much as you like your friend, you really don’t want to be put in that position.  

PAUSE HERE.

Are you able to raise your hand in a “stop” signal, halting the Alex-story your friend is already getting into, and say “you can tell me about it if you like, but I don’t know if this is something I want to get in the middle of”?

How comfortable are you with that one simple sentence, which shows no disrespect to your friend (“you can tell me about it if you like”) but also draws a boundary? Your action says “I am friends with Alex too, and this sounds like something between you and her/him, and if so, I really can’t get involved.” (It also says “I am unwilling to get caught up in dynamics that mimic the dramas of middle/ high school—but I am willing to listen, commiserate, and perhaps even offer some insight”). 

Interrupting the conversation at the outset is something we rarely do, for a number of reasons.

  • We want to be a good friend, and listen / offer advice;
  • We really are curious and do want to know about it, whatever it is.
  • We have not had ‘boundary-setting’ modeled to us, and have a difficult time knowing when or how to establish such lines.
  • We are afraid that by establishing our boundaries, we may be signaling a "rejection" of the intimacy our friend is looking to create by confiding the incident to us.  (The flip side of this is that we want the affirmation we will receive by assenting to passively listen and be pulled in….or the ego-boost we will receive by “offering advice.”)

Establishing boundaries awakens us from passive listening. We alert our friends to our capacities, and our limitations. We are willing to hear them out, if they want to vent. We will provide a sympathetic ear, and may even help them think through their response-options. But in the final analysis, the issue does not involve us.

It is important to emphasize that drawing boundaries does not preclude helping our friend sort out the experience. If and when we do listen to a recounting of the incident, there are a number of observations we can make and insights we can share without getting involved:

  • Where does our friend's account start and break off?  Is it really about the incident per se, or is the incident given added significance because the two have history?  If the incident appears to be the proverbial "straw breaking the camel’s back" then be sure that your friend does not try to make the emotional weight fall solely on whatever occurred the other day.
  • How many “I” statements does your friend use when telling the story, and how much control is linked to those statements? (Is the story rife with "S/he said..." and "s/he did...." or is there a balance, or even an emphasis on "I said" or "then I did...."  More importantly, are the "I statements" active "I told her/him..."  or passive "I didn't know what to do..." or "I should have...")  This will give you insight into how much responsibility your friend is assuming.
  • How much actual dialogue is involved in this incident?—That is, how much opportunity did your friend have to assert their position / point of view?  How much of their tale is simply outrage at something they had little or no opportunity to control / respond to in the moment?
  • Challenge the frame of the story.  Ask: “If Alex knew this is how you felt, what would s/he say about the incident?  How would they interpret what happened—and your response to it?”
  • “You know how s/he is...” is a blanket statement that can cover ‘gaps’ in the story, inconsistencies, or imposes motivations.   Yes, you do know “how s/he is”—but exactly what bearing does this knowledge have on the current incident?  Challenge your friend to spell it out—because sometimes, when something is spelled out, (out loud), inferences are put in a new light.  They seem "over the top"—even to the person making them. 

The ability to draw boundaries, as a bystander, enables you to be a trusted friend.  Aligning yourself with whatever interpretation your friend has given the incident, and rubber-stamping their emotional response, is not as valuable as creating a position from which you can prompt further thinking around it. 

Bystander participation in these circumstances is not about taking sides, but about facilitating a more comprehensive account, one which broadens the lens through which the incident is seen/understood/processed. 

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