How To Talk To Your Friends About Your Problems

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How To Talk To Your Friends About Your Problems

Words by Mr Oliver Burkeman

24 July 2019

It’s unfashionable to admit it, but there’s something to be said for the classic Mr Clint Eastwood or Mr John Wayne ideal of masculinity – the stoic, self-controlled loner who keeps a lid on his emotions. It emerged, back in the day, as a way to restrain the male tendency towards violence, and bottling things up is definitely healthier than killing everyone who annoys you. The problem is that, by restraining aggression, we end up restraining everything else, too. Strength and silence, at best, convey a calm confidence in one’s ability to navigate the world. We just need the confidence to navigate the world of emotions, too. Sometimes it’s crucial to be able to talk with male friends about what’s troubling you, or them. The good news, though, is this doesn’t require a personality transplant, just a few smart conversational tactics.

01. Look for the signs

When it comes to personal problems, the stereotype is that men favour a clear, logical, rational approach. But that can be a barrier when you, or a friend, can’t fully express what’s wrong, due either to embarrassment or a sheer lack of self-understanding. So, it is crucial to trust your intuition, whether you’re seeking help or offering it. Are you feeling inexplicably sad or engaging in unhealthy behaviour more often than usual? Do you get the sense that a friend needs to talk, even if he can’t say so? It’s tempting to think of gut feelings as squishy, unreliable things, but they evolved precisely as a way for our brains to process massive amounts of information, including facial expressions and other non-verbal cues, much faster than we’d manage via conscious deliberation.

02. Connection Is Key

Don’t get hung up about having emotional conversations in the “right” way. Most of the benefit comes from having them at all, although it’s better to have them face to face rather than online, when possible, since large swathes of interpersonal communication are non-verbal. Being too self-conscious about whether you’re correctly following certain steps can only get in the way. You don’t even necessarily need to talk explicitly about personal problems. You can connect deeply while speaking about sport, work or travel, provided you approach the interaction in an emotionally open frame of mind. And if a friend is in pain, you needn’t worry that talking might make things worse. We are afraid of reminding others of their distress, for example after a bereavement, but studies suggest that’s rarely a factor. They won’t need reminding, and they’ll probably be relieved for the opportunity to unload their burden.

03. Follow the five per cent rule

A large body of psychological research shows that friendships get deeper via disclosure reciprocity: I tell you something a bit personal, then you match it with something equally personal, and so on, in a back-and-forth process. People who never reciprocate come across as aloof, but people who suddenly vent all their deepest feelings at once risk freaking everyone out. To overcome the awkwardness of emotional conversation, a useful guide is to nudge yourself out of your comfort zone by about five per cent. If you’re talking to someone you’ve only ever bantered with before, now isn’t the time to reveal your trauma-filled childhood or ask why their marriage collapsed. But it might be the moment to mention, say, how stressful you’re finding work these days. Still, don’t sweat this to the point of becoming self-conscious. The main thing is just to talk.

04. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides

It’s a truth so fundamental that we usually forget it – you only have access to your own inner monologue, not other people’s. And so it’s almost inevitable that you’ll feel as though you’re the only one filled with despair, anxiety or self-criticism because yours are the only emotions you ever directly experience. (Impostor syndrome at work is the classic example. You feel like a fraud who’s somehow managed to trick everyone into thinking you’re qualified, but really they’re thinking the same about themselves.) Everyone else might seem as though they have it all together, especially on social media, where we’re incentivised to display only the highlights of our lives, but the truth is that, from their perspective, you probably seem like you’ve got it all together, too. Never refrain from starting a conversation because you fear you’re the only person in distress. You almost certainly aren’t and, in many cases, your willingness to go first in admitting it will be greeted with grateful relief.

05. Beware the overshare

None of this means it’s impossible to go too far, to be the too-much-information guy who won’t stop yammering about his feelings, or to become the doormat who’s obliged to listen all night to too-much guy’s yammering. The real problem is rarely a matter of too much. What unites the world’s genuinely annoying oversharers is that they have a hidden agenda. They’re complaining in order to try to make you feel guilty, for example, or to try to get you to give them the specific advice they’ve already decided they want to hear. Emotional conversations are the most beneficial when all parties let go of any agenda, other than the desire to connect. The best solutions to personal problems generally emerge, unpredictably, from the conversation itself.

Illustrations by Mr Alessandro Gottardo