Monday, September 22, 2014

Making Friends: Part 2

This segment isn't going to be very popular.  It's the hard part.  It also comes off a bit "preachy" but take it for what it's worth, what my life experience has taught me - not only for myself but those I'm close with and their friends.  Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Making Friends Step 2: 
You have to recreate your comfort zone

Getting out of the house is actually the easy step.  This next part involves making some conscious changes for yourself in how you interact with others.  We all have our comfort zone.  The space where we are comfortable being socially active is within that and is usually shaped when we are fairly young by life experiences.
Growing up as a military child, you don’t have the luxury of being shy for very long.   I was a pretty quiet kid for many years.  Looking back, most of those years were when I was constantly with cousins and other family members that made up my social circle.  Changing schools, moving overseas, and having siblings quickly changed the landscape of my comfort zone.  I had to decide to see people as potential additions to my social circle. 
In doing so, you learn several valuable life traits:
Discernment – Learning how, from a distance, to make a quick decision on a person’s personality is called judging.  I am not encouraging that at all.  Discernment is something you can’t really do from a distance.  Sure, you can read body language for aggression, malice, etc. to keep yourself safe.  You can perceive from context if someone appears to enjoy hurting others or causing a scene.  But true discernment requires at least a meeting and initial conversation.  Speaking to someone and watching how they behave – do they meet your eyes when they speak, are they fidgety, do they seem simply shy or have you caught them in three half-truths in the initial meeting? – is crucial.  Learning to discern if a person is worth a second conversation and getting to know better is important.  When you’re a child, it’s simple.  Do they play nice?  Do they treat others nicely?  Do they keep their word?  Those are the basics that kids look for because those fundamentals are all that matter in their world.  For the most part, those basics are a good jumping off point for deeper discernment as an adult. 
IMPORTANT NOTE: Let's have a quick aside and talk about the word "assumption".  It's a terrible thing to use assumption as a weeding factor in the people in your life.  Whether it's assuming you know something about a person without verification for yourself (gossip) or assuming the worst of everyone's speech (cynicism) - negative assumption can be a deathblow to potential relationships of all kinds.  If you're going to assume, then let a little Pollyanna into your life for this one area*, assume the best of people until proven otherwise.  Even further down that road, if the person is an existing relationship in your life - assume the best of them always unless they pointedly destroy those feelings with fire, faulsehoods and faithlessness.  Give people in your life a glorious bar to live up to, instead of a daunting cliff to climb.  I find that you get the same in return when you do, and isn't that a lovely feeling?

Conversation – Don’t roll your eyes.  There are many people who struggle with how to hold a basic conversation.  The idea of learning to actually listen, ask questions, and then open a new avenue of repartee is lost on many.  Some people only learn to listen, but cannot actively participate or steer a conversation.  These people often feel overwhelmed in crowds because they are steamrolled.  They end up going places they don’t like, eating food they don’t like, and listening to music they can’t stand because they never figured out how to put forward their preferences.  The common response here is to withdraw or assume people are bullies.  There are those who never learned to listen - and ladies many of us are guilty of this with the opposite sex (also actors, we’re guilty of this with non-performers).  These people get bored with others easily because they “never have anything to say”.  Often, that’s not actually true but there is rarely the consideration that perhaps those other people never got the chance to speak up or take a bit longer to figure out how they want to say something.  This brings us to learning to appreciate a genuine pause or silence.  When there is a lull in the conversation, that’s not the time to wander mentally or feel uncomfortable.  That’s the time to enjoy being with another person.  Whether it’s on a walk, at a meal, or watching a show together – there is usually a context that brings people together that you can soak in while giving someone a chance to respond.  Lastly, if you are with someone who seems reticent to take active participation – try to encourage them to share by asking questions and showing interest.  The generosity of asking someone to take the verbal floor goes a long way to easing the space for others.
Sacrifice – Sometimes, you have to take the hard road.  This is key.  People don’t always read others well.  Take a look at yourself and figure out if it’s possible you’re hard to read.  Do you maybe have a “resting face” that gives off a negative vibe?  That’s not your fault, but it may mean you need to actively work to smile more often or show overt interest in people until they get to know you better.  In the same vein, the person who has a naturally smiling resting face has to learn how to show people when they need space and don’t want to be approached.  There is a flip side to every coin.  Sometimes, you have to be the one to reach out first or more often.  If you have the ability to easily contact people first or welcome others to your home, don’t wait for someone else to set up an outing or make a phone call.  I know this won’t be an easy transition for many people but life is a seesaw.  What you give now will come back to you multiple times over from those with whom people you build relationships. 
Changing your comfort level in these three areas will make a world of difference.  It is much easier to approach meeting new people with a positive attitude if you go in expecting the best and working towards a positive outcome.  Yes, you will meet the occasional person who spoils an interaction but you’ll find more people respond to your positivity in a good and meaningful way. 
You may think that you don’t have a reason to change your comfort zone because you have never moved or been forced to leave people you care for behind.  But in truth, life is constantly forcing us to reshape our comfort zones.  Simply aging along changes what we are willing to accept in our lives and what we need.

This won’t be a rapid change in you, however.  It’s hard to change learned habits of a lifetime.  You have to consciously make the choice and learn to shake the dust off when you run into someone that tries to ruin your day.  Never give strangers the power to control your day – they may affect it, but those effects can only last as long as you allow. Remember, those of us who care about you are here cheering you on!  For those of you saying, "Why do I have to make all the changes?  Why can't other people change and come to me?" 

Because, like you, they are sitting at home saying the exact same thing.  You cannot control the behavior of others.  You can control your own, however, and give yourself the best opportunities in life.  That's what education and all the other social standards are in place for - to give each person the best opportunity for the life they desire.

I hope this is helpful to someone but if not, it’s at least a record of what I’ve learned about making friends in my own life.  And I have some pretty awesome friends!

*If you don't know who Pollyanna is, you should go to the nearest video access you have and watch it! 

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