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Friendship Maintenance

A Case of Understanding

A woman friend of mine recently teased me about my habit of watching the NBA playoffs. With her tongue planted not so firmly in her cheek, she laughingly said it was a mindless pastime and that my concern about who won and who lost was beyond her understanding. I told her there were many reasons I watched, but one of the most compelling was that televised sports are, to me, the most honest things on TV. And compared to the current shallow, so-called news-talk shows, they are far more meaningful.

She smiled and said, “I just don’t get it—overgrown men in shorts fighting over a ball—what’s so interesting? Can you explain what it is you find so riveting?”

I saw this as an interesting challenge. Could I explain to her why I was such a committed sports fan? I had some ideas about why but had never put them down on paper. Clearly, I had very little chance of converting her to sports watching but perhaps I could help her understand what motivated me to do it. I came up with the following letter of explanation.

Dear Mary,

Your question, What’s so interesting about sports? got me thinking. Hopefully, the  following will clarify why I enjoy watching sports and how it has held my interest over the years.

1. As a fan I’m always looking for the “perfect game.” Such a game is characterized by:

   —Opponents with an equal level of skill

   —Opponents who are equally well conditioned

   —Opponents with equal tactical and strategical skills

   —A level playing field

   —A contest where the outcome is unknown until the very end

Perfect games can give fans a unique high. The drama of such games is so intense and appreciated that they become legendary.

2. I appreciate the psychology of “momentum.” When both teams or individuals are playing well, momentum can change to the opposition in a heartbeat. Maintainance momentum is fragile and can change X number of times during a given game. Great coaches and athletes know how to bring about such shifts, and it’s fun watching the strategies and tactics they use in order to do so.

3. Teams are made up of players who are young and old, experienced and inexperienced, and the development of the intangible but important qualities of leadership and team chemistry is interesting to observe. Seeing players develop leadership confidence and watching them learn to gracefully exert it with teammates and bring about team chemistry is psychologically fascinating. 

4. Sports operate within a true meritocracy. As an athlete, you either perform under pressure or you are off the team. The ability to meet that pressure is a monstrous challenge. You’re scrutinized by your coaches, scores of writers and millions of fans. You cannot fake acceptable play. You must perform. Watching players learn to perform under pressure and change from being merely good to consistently great is inspiring and immensely entertaining.

5. With individual sports like tennis and cycling, watching players grow from inexperienced to experienced—from immature to mature—is intriguing. Talented young players are challenged to compete gracefully while millions watch and evaluate them on TV. Some don’t meet the maturity challenge even after years in the spotlight (e.g., tennis player Serena Williams’ graceless remarks when she loses). Some succeed (e.g., Rafael Nadal’s graceful post-match speeches whether he loses or wins).

With team sports, learning to be unselfish and to gracefully accept one’s given role on the team is a major challenge. There is a saying: “Until age 18, sports is a character builder, but after 18, it is a character revealer.” Self absorbed, non-team players are traded, fall by the wayside or end up playing for second-rate teams.

In his book Life on The Run, Bill Bradley, the ex-senator and legendary New York Knicks basketball player, wrote that he was asked why he continued to play past his prime. He explained that the willingness of an athlete to accept a lesser role on a team once it becomes clear he has diminished skills is a powerful opportunity for personal growth. We cannot be permanently at the top of our game, athletically or otherwise, and the willingness to contribute in a meaningul but diminished role is a sign of maturity.

For all these reasons, sports have held my interest for sixty-plus years (I was an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan by age eight). Naturally, whether my favorite team wins or loses is important to me, but it is not nearly as important or interesting as the above. I hope this letter gives you some insight into why I’m so passionate about sports watching.

Not surprisingly, my friend, in her answering email, wrote, “I understand now what it is you’re enjoying. I didn’t know sports offered so many things to appreciate. Sadly, it still seems like a waste of time to me. But I’m glad you get such fun and stimulation out of it.”

I’m fine with my friend’s reaction. All I wanted was her understanding of what I found worthwhile about sports. She gave me that. Sometimes when friends take an open-minded look at our passions and beliefs, they’ll choose to share our passion and sometimes they won’t. It is our openness to another’s experience when it is different from ours that makes the enrichment of a given friendship possible.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

Seeing the Best and Seeing the Worst

It was my eighth grade school graduation and my father, mother and all of my uncles were in the audience.  When my name was called for my diploma I ascended the short flight of stairs, approached the school principal, shook his hand as he handed me my diploma, left the stage and went back to my seat.

Afterwards, at the party in the back yard of our house, my Uncle Len walked up to me and while waving an Italian sausage sandwich in the air, said, “Ronnie, you were the only student who shook that principal’s hand like a man.  You looked him in the eye and smiled and gave him a good firm hand grip and shook his hand like you meant it.  God damn it, I’m proud of you.”

This happened almost sixty years ago in the spring of 1950.  I still remember the glow I felt when he said those words.  In that moment I saw my self through his eyes and I liked what I saw.  My Uncle Len had a way of doing that and to this day, though he’s long gone, I count him as one of my best friends.

In this same vein, there is a female comic, I can’t remember her name, who tells a story about how she loved to visit her grandmother because she made a fuss over every little thing she did.  “Look at the way she holds that fork!  What poise, how perfectly she uses her fingers.”   “Look at the way she steps into the swimming pool.  How elegant she is.” She concluded her story about her grandmother by saying, “I used to run to her house after school. I could not get there fast enough.” Her grandparents made her feel very special, loved and safe.

This ability to see the special aspects of others and to let them know you see them is one of the secret ingredients of friendship. It comes naturally to some people. They seem to be born with the ability to see and appreciate the unique and admirable qualities in others. The great gift they offer is allowing us to see the very best in ourselves. Since they see only the best we bask in our reflected good qualities.

With some people, the opposite is true. They see only the negative qualities in others and are not shy about pointing them out. Such people are difficult to be around and are often shunned socially because they generate hurt feelings on a regular basis. It is not fun spending time with someone who constantly points out the weaknesses or shortcomings of others.

Negative people often rationalize their critical and negative ways by describing themselves as “honest” or “frank.” They often brag, “You always know where you stand with me.” I describe such behavior differently. I call it “Hostility under the guise of frankness.”

Those folks who see the best in us are those we want to spend time with. Folks who see the worst in us are those we avoid. The question we all have to ask ourselves is, “Where, on the continuum between these two extremes, do I fall?” If you decide you are too critical and uncharitable with your family and friends you might want to begin practicing seeing the best in others rather than the worst.

The way to do this is to ask the following question when you are tempted to be critical of another’s behavior: “What is the most charitable explanation I can come up with to explain this behavior?” You will be surprised how many times you will be able to find such a charitable explanation. Further, you will be amazed at how often your alternative explanation turns out to be true. The fact is, most folks’ motives are good and if you assume the best you are usually correct.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.     


Friendship Terminators: “You made a mistake! You’re history!”

This past week my client Joanna told me about a painful run-in she had experienced with a friend of 20 years. I think it’s an important example of a pattern of interaction that destroys friendships.

The back story: Five years ago her friend Lonnie, after many unsuccessful attempts, finally managed to break up with Steve, her longtime boyfriend. Apparently, he had been both charming and abusive—a deadly combination—and Lonnie had been addicted to the relationship despite knowing better. While going through the frequent breakups and reconciliations and airing her complaints to friends, Lonnie often referred to Steve as “the devil,” saying she needed to “exorcise” him from her life.

Skip to the present. Lonnie has been living alone for the five years since the breakup and has unfortunately been trying to cope with the loneliness of single life by numbing out with alcohol. She now has a serious drinking problem and is defensive and socially withdrawn. Joanna is her only remaining friend.

This past week, Joanna invited Lonnie to lunch and during the meal, Joanna said, “Lonnie, I’m thinking about joining a gym and working out. Why don’t you join too and we can begin exercising together. It’ll be fun.”

Lonnie, wide-eyed and instantly full of rage, stood up and screamed at Joanna, “How dare you say that to me. How dare you taunt me in this way.  What kind of friend are you? I would never do this to you.”  Joanna, mystified, asked, “What did I say?  What did I do? All I’m suggesting is that we exercise together.” Lonnie, still screaming, said, “My god, you did it again. I can’t believe you would use the word ‘exorcise’ with me.  You know how painful my breakup was with Steve.  You’re rubbing my nose in it.  I can’t be friends with you anymore.  I’m out of here.”  She then left the restaurant.

Joanna, perplexed and sad as she related the story to me, said, “I can’t believe she interpreted an innocent suggestion that we exercise as taunting her about her “exorcism” of Steve. My god, it seems like an almost insane assumption on her part. I feel horrible and yet I know I haven’t done anything wrong. I called her to try and explain things but she said our friendship is over, ordered me to never contact her again, and then hung up on me.”

I explained to Joanna that Lonnie’s alcohol addiction has apparently reached the stage where it now affects her ability to accurately perceive reality. Such distorted perceptions are not unusual during the middle and later stages of drug addiction and often prevent the building and maintenance of stable friendships.

Joanna understands this but is having difficulty accepting that she has most likely been permanently written off by her longtime friend for no good reason. Such rejections are painful because in addition to the loss of the friendship, there is always a lingering fear that one has somehow actually caused the break.

While Lonnie’s abrupt termination of her friendship with Joanna is complicated by her alcohol abuse, it is also most likely a long-term pattern. I refer to individuals who end friendships so abruptly and without first trying to fix things as “Friendship Terminators.”  Such folks usually have a history of abruptly ending friendships. The core problem is often a poorly developed ability to effectively resolve conflicts.

It has been my experience that “single children”—that is, individuals who were raised without siblings—often do not have good conflict-resolution skills. Because they did not have the benefit of the unavoidable and repeated arguing, forgiving and forgetting with siblings, they tend to hold grudges and to simply end friendships when someone hurts their feelings or says something thoughtless. They tend to take such mistakes far too personally and to overreact as a result.

Additionally, folks who have led entitled lives (e.g., star athletes, unusually attractive people, wealthy or famous people) with little experience bending or negotiating are more apt to write people off if they perceive them as not meeting their expectations.

This piece is designed to enhance your awareness.  As I keep stressing on this site, building and maintaining friendships is all about awareness and skill building. If after reading this, you determine you’re a “Friendship Terminator,” don’t be discouraged. It is a habit, not a fixed character trait. So, here’s the good news: If you learned it, you can unlearn it.

I explain in detail some of the skills necessary for conflict resolution in other articles I’ve posted. For starters, check out these: Disagreements and Humor, Feeling Messages, Friendship Basics, and Rules of Friendship.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.