Friendship is a long conversation. Indeed, the ability to generate good talk by the hour is the most promising indication, during the uncertain early stages, that a possible friendship will take hold.
The pressure to achieve "quality" communication, however, sometimes induces a sort of inauthentic epiphany for overeager friends-to-be (not unlike what sometimes happens with an eager to please patient in the last ten minutes of a psychotherapy session). In the first few conversations there may be an exaggeration of agreement, for example, as both parties attempt to connect ("You like sardines on your pizza?! Me too!"). And if authenticity does not enter in soon, the two parties form an uneasy kind of pseudo-friendship that creates more pretense than pleasure. Fortunately, even eager friends do not need to be bedraggled by this subtle snare. With the proper tools, they can break through the surface.
Mastering the art of good talk requires just two simple tools. The first is a listening ear. Some people are especially skilled at opening others up. They readily elicit intimacy because they listen well. The late psychologist Carl Rogers called such people "growth-promoting" listeners. His years of research revealed that good listeners genuinely convey interest in understanding the other person, they accept the person’s feelings without interruption, and they empathize by trying to see the world from that person’s perspective. These are the skills of a good listener: genuineness, acceptance and empathy.
Just the other night, a woman charmed me (Leslie) at a dinner party when she wanted to know all about my work at Seattle Pacific University. At first I thought she was simply offering the standard issue question, "So, what do you do?" required upon first meetings. But she wasn’t. With her follow up comments and questions, it became apparent that she wasn’t interested in uneasy small talk; she was interested in me ("Sounds like you really enjoy working with students. How’d you catch a vision for that?"). She genuinely wanted to enter my world and understand my feelings. I could have talked to her all night; in fact, I did. First-rate listeners have a way of doing that.
The second tool for creating friendly conversation is self-disclosure. Weighed and measured in appropriate amounts, self-disclosure is the primary ingredient for potential friendship. In fact, no decent friendship can be made without it. Here’s how self-disclosure works. You spill something a bit private and chances are something intimate will get spilled back on you. Vulnerability begets vulnerability. Social scientists call it the "disclosure reciprocity effect." Whatever you call it, however, beware: It’s risky. If I reveal a part of me, my excitement, my insecurity, whatever, I open myself up to potential rejection. You may not accept what I disclose. You may belittle it or brush it off. If you do nothing less than reciprocate my vulnerability, I feel slighted. But if you do share my secret, if you identify with me, we’ve struck the cord of friendship and are no longer alone.
C. S. Lewis wrote about the process of self-disclosure and friendship in his classic book The Four Loves: "The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’-it is then that Friendship is born."
Knowing when and how to talk about yourself is as important a skill as listening. No one really gets close to the kind of person who’s so careful about her image she never reveals anything intimate. You’ve got to open up, but not too wide. In other words, if you reveal too much you’ll overwhelm the other person. Nobody appreciates a blabber mouth who unloads unedited memories that could interest only a mother. And one more caution about self-disclosing: Don’t replace it with gossip and think you’ll accomplish the same thing. Everyone warms to the person who tells tales on him or herself. But there’s nothing more repellent than the person who’s constantly telling you some horrible secret about someone else.