I’ve been hearing a theme from people and reading the advice columns of how often we are disappointed with our friends. It sounds like this: “I always do [fill in the blank] for her, but she never reciprocates.” “I was there for him, but now he’s too busy to help me.” Whether its remembering birthdays, helping with projects, initiating meet-ups, mutual griping, or asking for help there are many ways we depend on our friends. We are drawn to them because of the things we share in common and we like being around them. When we’re in sync, everything is fine. Having strong social relationships at work and in life is fundamental to our happiness.
Have you noticed that you are the one that always initiates a lunch? What does that say to you? Unless you ask, its easy to assume that s/he doesn’t care as much. Or it could mean s/her knows you’ll do it and has fallen into the habit of waiting to hear from you. The concept of reciprocation just doesn’t occur to them. But you really don’t know, unless you ask.
When you break your foot, your close friend is now too busy to help you get around. It’s not convenient for her to pick you up. Should you break off the friendship? Or does it just redefine the boundaries?
In “Vital Friends,” Tom Rath takes a look at the roles our friendships have in our lives illustrating that not everyone can be the same kind of friend. This applies to our friends at work, family and others. Initially, I recoiled at categorizing my friendships into eight roles they play in my life. Then, it began to make sense that I expected to get from them the same thing I gave to them. Not everyone can do that. And I was often disappointed. For example, I found myself getting frustrated with a friend who took all the “air” time we had together and considered ending the friendship. When she told me how much my listening meant to her, I realized the friendship was my gift to her. What I got was knowing that I mead a difference in her life. Now I know to set my expectation of how to both give and get the most from our friendship. Friendships are rarely an even trade.
Friends take care of friends…sometimes. Some people are just more attuned to what is needed in certain situations – a break-up, an illness, any loss, or opportunities for career advancement or fun. When you discover a friend didn’t include you on a project, you may hear, “I didn’t know you’d be interested.” Some don’t want to deal with the not-so-pretty side of the friendship. Many people really just don’t know what to do or say. Still others cannot be inconvenienced or don’t see anything in for them in the situation, so they avoid it.
If you didn’t get the plum assignment, let them know how you are feeling and how you’ll move forward. Especially in times of loss, its very helpful to let others know specifically what would comfort you: Let them know if you’ll need motivation to get some exercise – come take me for a walk or go to a class/gym. Bring cookies, but also stay and tell me what’s going on outside my painful universe. Get my list and pick up groceries.
Our friends reciprocate, just not in the same way. Recognize the person who will keep a secret, but not necessarily give you guidance. Don’t ask for help in finding a new job from someone who doesn’t have a broad network. Share ideas with people who can broaden your perspective, not just agree with you. Be specific with easy-to-do requests to help others be a better friend to you. And let it be OK for them to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.’
Check your assumptions about what others “should” know. We didn’t all learn the same lessons of courtesy nor know what’s unique for your happiness.
Aligning my expectations with what others are capable of bringing to the friendship helps me go to the right person for the friend I need. It also helps me be a better friend to others.