In an increasingly virtual world, many of us long for the intimacy of face-to-face friendship yet find it challenging. A recent survey suggests that 47% of Americans are somewhat satisfied to not at all satisfied with the number of people they classify as friends (American Perspectives Survey; May 2021) and this doesn’t begin to touch on the satisfaction we have with the depth of those friendships. How can you grow in communication and take steps to expand upon already existing friendships so they’re flourishing in a more significant way?
- Small Talk (the “hi” and “how’s it going?” when we first meet)
- Fact Disclosure (superficial information about our daily lives)
- Common Ground (discussion about thoughts, feelings and opinions)
- Emotional Intimacy (the deeper sharing of our true selves including our fears, hurts, motivations, needs and dreams)
Level Up. Relationship experts describe four basic levels of conversation:
None of these stages are unimportant. We recognize, for example, that it would be socially awkward to jump straight to the deeper levels of sharing without having engaged in some amount of small talk and fact exchange. On the flip side, sometimes friendships remain superficial, never going below the surface. Depth requires intentionality and risk which can feel uncomfortable and even unsafe if we’ve been hurt in previous friendships. Yet it’s important to move, in time, to deeper levels of sharing as trust is built. Let’s consider how we can grow in each of these levels of communication in order to reach new levels of transparency with our friends.
Small Talk. So much more is happening below the surface of our pleasantries and chit chat. Subconscious judgements are being made. We’re reading nonverbals such as posture, eye contact and body language in order to make assessments about one another. Is this person warm or withdrawn? Comical or moody? Overly confident or shy? These assessments may be accurate or totally off. But it’s important to realize we give off first impressions, and to do what we can to be genuine–and hopefully that includes genuine warmth and interest in others. If not, this will undoubtably leak through and affect our interactions going forward. It’s good to evaluate at times what our nonverbals are saying about us. It’s in these seemingly meaningless exchanges that we sometimes sense a spark of initial curiosity about another human being that turns into the earliest stages of friendship.
Fact Disclosure. Though sometimes mundane, friendships need a foundation and that can’t happen if you don’t interact on the information-gathering level. This is where asking good questions is of the essence. Like a detective, you want to find out as much as you can about this person—where they live, their hobbies and interests, their college major, likes and dislikes, their family and background. However, friendships are based on mutuality and reciprocal sharing, so you must share these details, too. It’s important to identify if we are more naturally a talker or a listener. Some of us need to learn to elaborate when asked a question; others of us need to learn to be concise! Like playing a game of catch with yourself, one-sided conversation is no fun! Think about volleying the conversation back-and-forth. Lean in and don’t just hear; really listen. While listening, challenge yourself to catch the “threads to pull on.” Circle back to details mentioned in passing and ask more questions (“you mentioned your brother… where does he live? Are you close?”). If you catch yourself anxious to respond, it probably means you’re not staying present in the moment. Active listening builds a sense of security which allows others to feel heard and valued enough to go on to deeper levels of sharing.
Common Ground. We’ve all relaxed at the most comforting words in the human language: “me too.” When it comes to sharing our opinions, thoughts and feelings, one desire we have is assurance that we’re not alone. This doesn’t mean we must agree with each other all the time or pretend to know how someone feels when we don’t. Honesty is of utmost importance. But as we begin to wade into unfamiliar waters and share our emotions, it’s helpful to find and embrace our commonalities with one another. Author Stephen Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”1 True understanding requires us to ask clarifying questions (“I think you’re saying ____?” or “Do you mean _____?”). When a friend shares their thoughts or feelings it’s sacred ground. Showing authentic respect is important, even when we disagree. This means pausing to think before we respond and showing empathy. Criticism or disengagement will short-circuit our communication almost instantly.
Emotional Intimacy. Only with time do we get to this level of communication. Don’t rush it! But remember that openness leads to openness. When you’ve built trust and safety by interacting at the other levels, be willing to take a risk of vulnerability and share something at the soul level. Then wait for reciprocation, because again, mutuality in relationships is important. No one wants to do the heavy lifting alone; healthy relationships have a sense of 50/50 giving and receiving. Make sure you’re striving to do both! Make a concerted effort to go deeper and you will eventually find you’ve built something helpful, full of joy and beautiful.
1Stephen R. Covey “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change Interactive Edition” p.298, Mango Media Inc., 2016