Stephanie arrived for her session upset, talking even before she sat down. “I have a dilemma,” she began, “everyone is talking about my friend’s son, saying he is smoking a lot of weed! My friend doesn’t know. Should I tell her or mind my own business?” However specific the plight of her friend’s son, Stephanie is far from alone in dealing with this quandary. It can be challenging to know the difference between being a good friend and interfering.
To make things more complicated, the range of problems is varied and there are no rules for how to proceed. It can be small, self-help things like telling a friend she gossips to the degree of alienating others or that improved grooming is in order or bigger, more perplexing issues like a friend’s spouse is cheating or their kids behave so badly the family is becoming unwelcome. It can be awkward and stressful largely because it all depends on the receiver of the information. It is also probable—possibly likely—the friendship will be ruined by confrontation. Before forging ahead proceed carefully, weighing pros and cons, and be ready to be gentle.
Determine whether health or safety are at risk. If so (as with Stephanie’s son), a conversation may be in order. Next, fact-checking is critical—especially for substance abuse or infidelity. Rigorously separate facts from opinion and set the latter aside. Once armed with evidence, determine whether the level of friendship warrants the conversation. Being a “best” friend may not be essential, especially for safety issues, but real friendship and not just casual acquaintance is necessary for the information to be received with trust.
Be mindful that friendship can be ruined by honesty—the messenger may be shot—but there is a lot of gray area. It may be impossible to continue the friendship without the confrontation, or the friendship proves to be unimportant if the other person is willing to give it up so easily. Conversely, it might be such a deep friendship that not talking would violate the core of the relationship.
Consider also whether or not a confrontation will change the situation. Will telling a friend that she dresses poorly change her fashion sense or merely hurt her feelings? Some people are highly defensive, unable to hear anything negative about themselves even when presented sensitively. If there is no chance a conversation will change the situation, it is usually not worth having it.
Once the decision is made to have the big talk, prepare thoroughly. Be ready with concrete examples and clear facts. Practice the delivery and (if possible) share with a confidante to ensure the words being conveyed are sensitive and supportive. In some cases it is advisable to invite another friend to join the conversation because some people are better able to hear feedback when it’s from more than one person. However, this could be perceived as ganging up. Assess carefully, putting a friend’s needs above all else.
Remember this is a conversation that must be private, timed well and with no pressure to rush off. It shouldn’t take place during a lunch break, 30 minutes before school pickup or during a larger gathering. The friendship must be honored, by giving a serious conversation enough time to unfold and come to its natural conclusion.
During the conversation, focus on expressing deep concern, the value of honesty and the importance of conveying facts. Don’t say too much at once, stop frequently to let the friend air their side and gauge receptivity. If there is anger back down, not everyone welcomes help. True friendship is complex, but when guided by a genuine desire to help that is paired with sensitivity, there is an excellent chance that a friend’s life might be changed for the better and the friendship strengthened.