Don't Do This One Thing That Hurts Friendship

Learn the key to mutually-enhancing relationships.

Posted Sep 02, 2018

Source: Liderina/Shutterstock

Here is a story that illustrates one of the most important relationship skills we can learn:

My friend, Audrey, a gifted musician and cook, is also a wonderful talker. The only child of doting parents, she was rewarded for her talent with words, and the way she could entertain and impress her parents' friends and other adults.

She carried on with this behavior, unmodified, into adulthood. When another person would tell a story, she often grabbed the first empty space by saying, "That reminds me of something that happened to me." Then she would proceed to tell a longer, even more dramatic story about her incredible trip to Paris or her near-death experience hailing a cab in Chicago.

Audrey is often admired for being such an interesting person, which makes it harder for her to observe the absence of mutuality in her connections. People were impressed by her, but didn't leave her company feeling a greater sense of worth themselves. And Audrey had no idea that the gift of listening could be an even greater gift than the ability to speak brilliantly.

A turning point came during one of her small, elegant dinner parties. A guest I hardly knew named Stanley was asked about his daughter's recent diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Not too long after he began speaking, Audrey said, "I know exactly what you mean," and turned the conversation to her own experience with a health scare when she was in college.

She had spoken for only a minute or two when Stanley suddenly began sobbing. He collected himself at once, and offered a simple apology to his host: "I'm sorry, Audrey," he said softly. "I didn't mean to interrupt. I just can't listen right now because I'm too preoccupied with my daughter."

Of course, Stanley had no reason to apologize and Audrey recognized that. For the first time, she felt acutely aware of her insensitivity. This painful encounter led her to a new level of insight and capacity for self-observation. She later told me that Stanley's tears made her feel like the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulled the curtain back and exposed a big phony. But what Stanley had exposed, really, was the fact that Audrey was an ordinary, flawed, uncertain human being, just like the rest of us.

Audrey decided to practice listening. She was disciplined in all her pursuits, like cooking and playing the flute and cello. Now she chose to apply that same discipline to listening. Practice is everything, whether we're aiming to take up more—or less—space.

The next time Audrey was together with friends she experimented with only listening and asking questions. When asked about herself, she made an effort to answer simply, without elaboration or her usual superlatives.

Obviously, Audrey didn't completely change her habitual, reflexive habits with one gigantic act of will. But she kept practicing. When she spoke, she did so with more thought and consideration. This change, which initially required "watchful effort" on Audrey's part, eventually led to her feeling more relaxed and more herself. She discovered that being "ordinary" wasn't a terrible failure but rather a centering human experience. 

Perhaps our courage to embrace our ordinariness (along with our uniqueness) is one of the true keys to happiness in our most valued relationships—including the relationship with our own self.