I have a friend and she is pure joy. Sometimes she’s like a summer sea breeze, all possibility and light. Sometimes she’s like cashmere and red wine on a winter’s night. Sometimes she’s like a healer, mystic and magical, wise and steady.
It figures, then, that I go to her for advice. She listens, she comforts and she gives her opinion. She makes me feel seen and better, and we normally laugh.
But one time, not so long ago, things didn’t play out as they normally do. I told her that I’d had a fertility test and my results were 'just under average'. But, I said, I’m waiting for a big career opportunity. I don’t want to miss this opportunity, I told her over the phone, walking around a freezing cold park in one of the seemingly endless lockdowns.
There were a lot of variables. When would lockdown end, borders open, when could trips be taken? How 'bad' is my fertility? Was I overreacting? How much difference could six, seven, eight months make?
My friend, uncharacteristically, jumped in. "You have to start trying now," she said. "Work can wait. Who knows how long it will take? Start trying now."
Immediately, her words didn’t feel right. They were instructional, panicked. They weren’t helping to draw truth out of me, like they normally do; they were creating a truth for me. After countless years of friendship, for the first time I put down the phone and thought, That wasn’t what I needed to hear.
Can I complain? I’d been asking for advice, after all. And she was being honest. Except I hadn’t really been asking her to tell me what to do. I’d been seeking comfort. I was asking her to listen as I thrashed out this dilemma and the constellation of worries that came with it.
Listening, active listening, is selfless and generous. It removes any trace of the listener – all focus is on the friend.
A few weeks later, we’re walking her newborn around another park. After we buy a coffee, she immediately apologises. She’s tearful (although I would be, too, if I hadn’t slept for a month). "I shouldn’t have said that. This is your decision. I’m sorry." And there she was, my wonderful, sea breeze, cashmere wizard, offering me love and support again.
We learn pretty early on that great friends dispense great advice. As a teen, when I assumed that my mum couldn’t possibly understand a single thing about being 15, my friends helped steer me through the maze of boys and periods and puberty. We see it in films and on TV: Friends, Sex and the City, Girls, Frasier, Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang.
Your friends are there to advise and guide. If they are good friends, they have your back no matter what; often, they know what’s right for you before you do. They are meant to give us advice, and we are meant to listen.
But is this always a good idea? For Tobi* and Tracey*, both 28, the swapping of advice led to the end of a friendship. When Tobi began a new relationship less than a year after breaking up with her partner of six years, Tracey counselled her to stay single, get to know herself again and build up her self-esteem. Getting into another relationship would be "madness", Tracey told her. "I felt permanently judged," Tobi says. "I couldn’t help the timing of meeting Keiron. And in an ideal world, sure, I might have stayed single for longer. But life isn’t like that." Tracey, she says, wasn’t prepared to consider what she was saying. "She accused me of all sorts of things – being afraid to be alone, being needy, immature."
While Tobi believes that Tracey was coming from a good place, it made their friendship unsustainable. "She thought my whole life was a bad decision. Where do you go from that?"
Mairead Molloy, a relationship psychologist with over 20 years of experience, reminds us that it’s important to start with an ego-denting truth: on some level it really doesn't matter what you say or what advice you give because, she believes, "mostly, people will always follow their own instincts".
Your role as a friend, therefore, is to help them see their options in any given dilemma, not dictate them, especially if their thoughts are clouded because they are particularly anxious, angry or upset. "Let her get it all out and then break it down with her and let her come to her own conclusion," stresses Molloy.
London-based psychologist and author Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari agrees. Being a good friend in these moments is about helping your friend realise what they want or need, not telling them. "You can help a friend with the strategy to work through their situation, without actually giving them direct advice. If your friend really does need advice, consider how to help them to really listen to their own wisdom and reflect on their own experiences, to find their inner voice as this can really guide them towards what is right for them at this time."
Instead of responding to a friend’s dilemma by offering an action plan or advice, experts agree that the best thing is not to talk but to listen. Through active, engaged listening you can help your friend see a way forward. Our job as friends, Molloy and Dr Ben-Ari suggest, isn't to turn up with a map of a route out of her problem. Our job is to provide the tools – the emotional support, the headspace to think through her options, the sounding board to whisper her fears – that will allow her to chart her own route forward. All of that stems from listening.
To be an active listener, Molloy recommends the five following things: 1) Be present, and in the moment. Switch your phone off. Dedicate fully to her; 2) Be honest but be open-minded. What’s right for you might not be right for her; 3) Ask good questions, keep them open-ended, curious and exploratory, such as: Have you considered X? Have you thought about Y?; 4) Be patient; 5) Don’t make it about you. Don’t chip in with a story about you, or base your response on what you would do. If a friend asks you what you’d do in their shoes, be honest, Molloy implores. That’s important. But frame your response so it’s clear that what is right for you isn’t automatically the best thing for your friend.
"Nothing is more mind-freeing than transparency,'' Molloy says. We want our friends to be honest, especially in moments of crisis or vulnerability, but just as importantly, she warns: "You can’t give orders, you can’t judge." Dispense your honesty but always with the important caveat that it comes with love and without judgement.
Dr Ben-Ari also recommends reflecting back. "Another way to become a better listener is to reflect back on what you are hearing, even if this is just the last sentence that was said, as it will encourage them to share more about it. Reflecting back is simply repeating back the last sentence then remaining quiet while the other person explains more about it. This way, the friend can do their own processing while increasing awareness to the underlying issue of their dilemma or challenge."
You can't give orders, you can't judge.
Mairead Molloy, relationship psychologist
As friends we think we should give advice because it allows us to feel useful. But there is another way to fulfil the urge to fix a friend’s problem, Molloy points out: show up. "Take round food if her mum’s ill," she gives as an example. Do. Act. These things don’t need words but they show you’re supportive and may give the headspace she needs. Dr Ben-Ari has similar advice. "Simply be with them through their journey. Sometimes just checking in with friends and asking them how they are feeling and how you can be of help is the true meaning of a good friendship."
Dr Ben-Ari and Molloy’s advice boils down to kindness, selflessness, empathy and love. All of which we would want a friend to show to us when we’ve got our back to the wall or worries have overcome us, or our next move isn’t an obvious one. But so often we get in the way of our own good intentions.
Hearing the advice of the experts, I realise I tell my bilingual friends who have lived in warm countries to move back all the time. When they are unsure about moving to Spain or France or Mexico City, without a second thought I say: "Jump at it! What are you waiting for?" Really, that encouragement comes from my own far-flung dream of speaking Spanish and living in the mountains behind Barcelona. The reality is that I wouldn’t be the one making the decision to move away from friends and family, to find a new job, undergo a major life change. I think they’ll thrive there and I can tell them that, of course, but perhaps encouraging them to leave doesn’t actually help their decision-making process and therefore I’m not being the best friend I could be.
Listening, active listening, is selfless and generous. It removes any trace of the listener – all focus is on the friend. When we allow our friends to be really heard, we allow them to be their full selves, to be seen and known. And that’s how they’ll get closer to making a decision that’s right for them. Isn’t that what true friendship is? When the sea breeze, cashmere wizard apologised, she told me she trusted that I’ll make the right decision for me. "I have every faith in you," she said. That’s what active listening is: showing you have faith that your friend will find a way forward that’s best for them.
*Name changed to protect anonymity