Making friends and getting to know them

How long does it take to know whether you like someone or not? How long does it take for you to realise that you are friends?  What makes someone a friend? How long does it take to get to know someone?  What do you need to do in order to get to know someone?  These are all questions which I’ve been mulling over for some time.

There are a number of people that I class as friends, but I’ve no idea when we first met, how we ended up talking in the first place, and what made us “click”.  We’re not friends to the extent that we go out for meals or spend time with each other: we met through work and have always been on good terms.  Is that a different type of friend than those we do socialise with?  Don’t get me wrong, if the opportunity arose I’m sure that I’d be happy to have a beer or two and have a chat, but they’re not the people that I’d pick a phone up to if I needed some support.

In those cases, I think that we were thrown together, perhaps on a project or a contract, and had to forge a working relationship very quickly.  I’m guessing – though as I say the details are a bit hazy – that we very quickly established a mutual respect and awareness of each other’s skills and abilities.  Being able to trust someone in a work context like that probably does have a positive effect on your perception of what the other person is like i.e. you become friends.

What about when you make friends outside work?  Good examples that spring to mind are the friends you make through a mutual interest in an activity e.g. some people I met who played in other bands, or others I met while in the pub watching football. I suppose that the very fact that you’re sharing an interest means that you have at least some things in common. I know that there were those who I only spoke to for a few minutes and knew that I didn’t take to them – didn’t like them – and that the chances of building a friendship were nil.  Likewise, there are those I spoke to briefly and something “clicked”, enough to encourage me to talk to them more. Lo and behold, a new friendship was forged within a few minutes.

I know that the process isn’t foolproof, that some people you like initially grate on you and you realise you don’t actually want to be friends with them, so you have to disentangle yourself from that relationship. (If you’re one of my Facebook friends reading this, you don’t belong to that category!)

It’s obviously impossible to say in that short period of time that you can possibly “know” the person, know what makes them tick, know what their views are on life, the universe and everything, know just how compatible you are or how deep that friendship can be.

So how do you get to know a person to that extent?  I think it’s quite simple, but it does require some effort on your part.  You need to talk to them, ask them questions, find out what drives and motivates them, what they like, what they dislike.  And here’s the difficult bit for some people. When you ask questions, LISTEN to the answers you get.

There’s a big difference between hearing what someone says and listening to what they say.

Don’t listen so that you can jump in with your experiences of something similar.  Don’t dismiss what is said and change the subject.  Ask more questions based on what you’ve heard.  Find the topics that enthuse the other person and ask about those topics. Watch the person transform and respond to your interest.

The other big “don’t” when trying to get to know someone is don’t keep talking about yourself at the time.  Conversations are supposed to be interactive two way transactions.  They’re supposed to cover common ground, and will inevitably reach the edges of knowledge or experience for at least one of the participants.  For example, if one person loves football and the other one doesn’t – don’t talk about football!  Talking about family, friends or acquaintances that the other person doesn’t know is also bad form: the one caveat to that I would say is if the person is about to meet who you’re talking about in the near future, then providing some background – perhaps focussing on potential areas of common ground – could be helpful.

One of the key things I’ve realised in the last year or so is this.  If someone is opening up to you, talking about something close and personal to them e.g. the death of a loved one, a serious illness, concerns about their job, then you are incredibly privileged.  The fact that they trust you enough to open up about such intensely personal and private thoughts is remarkable, and you owe it to them to listen and respond appropriately.  They have honoured you by letting you in so close, so don’t throw that honour back at them by making light of the subject, by changing the subject too soon, by talking about yourself or anything like that.  Some people (myself included, in the past) don’t recognise this privilege and effectively reject the other person – you give them the impression that they don’t matter. This is obviously bad!

We’ve seen that there are no exact answers to the questions I raised at the beginning. I guess I’ll leave you by stating the obvious: friendships take effort to cultivate and maintain, but getting to know someone needs much more listening, comprehension and compassion.

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