Friendship is one of those undervalued topics in our culture. Just as we value achievement over process and staying busy over taking time to rest, so we value intimate partnership high above platonic friendship.
And yet, as many happily married people will tell you, the reason why their marriage is successful is because of their strong friendships. And as many happily single people will tell you, the reason why they're happy is because of their solid network of support.
However, great friends don't grow on trees, as I often tell my clients who are longing to meet more kindred spirits. A decent friend is fairly easy to come by, but a great friend — a truly like-minded and like-hearted individual with whom you share that special alchemy — is a rare gift.
And once you leave the school environment, it's even more challenging to meet a great friend. But just like one of the keys to a successful partnership is to learn about what it means to give love (instead of buying into the cultural definition that love is only a feeling), one of the secrets to attracting and sustaining meaningful and rich friendships is to become the friend you wish to have. Be the person you wish to attract.
What follows are 10 essential qualities of a great friend. As you read through the list, notice which ones you embody and which you could improve upon. And if you've even one or friend who embodies these qualities, count your blessings. A great friend is a gift to cherish for a lifetime and is often the lifeline that gets you through the rough patches of daily living.
A great friend:
1. Listens with empathy and presence.
This is, perhaps, the most important and also the least common quality to find in a friend: the ability to listen with complete acceptance and without interruption or offering unsolicited advice. A great friend listens with an open heart, is fully present (isn't checking his iPhone while you're telling him about your painful breakup), and asks follow-up questions that indicate the he was, in fact, really listening.
2. Holds space for other.
Most people tend to have a strong habit toward self-absorption. You start to speak and within a few minutes, you find that the conversation has flipped to the other person. When someone is talking about trouble at work, for example, a great friend doesn't turn the conversation to talk about trouble at her job unless it's completely in service of supporting the one who initiated the conversation.
Similarly, when you're on a one-hour hike with a friend and you notice that you've talked for 40 minutes, you make a point to say, "So tell me about you. How are things with your mother?" Of course, these aren't hard-and-fast rules; there will be times when the intensity of your need deems it entirely appropriate to take up the entire hour. But in general, a great friend is mindful of time and space and acts accordingly.
3. Has good boundaries.
A great friend is able to keep secrets and is honest. If someone shares something private with you, a great friend doesn't share it with anyone else without explicit permission.
4. Doesn't triangulate.
Similar to #3, a great friend doesn't talk about others who aren't in the room, particularly if you have a friend in common. So if Mary, Jennifer, and Suzie are all friends, Mary and Jennifer would be mindful not to discuss Suzie if she's not present for the conversation.
It's easy to bond over discussing someone else's shortcomings, but it's the fastest way to break trust. For as soon as you realize that your friend is talking about someone else, you can rest assured that she's also talking about you behind your back.
5. Supports others' successes.
A great friend is a cheerleader. If your friend strikes a book deal, you take her out to lunch. If your friend meets the woman of his dreams, you make time to hear every detail. You take genuine pleasure in others' joy, even if you're struggling to find your own at times.
6. Can admit to feeling envious.
Likewise, a great friend is only human, and, while supporting others' successes, it's normal to feel envious. The problem isn't the envy but the attempt to deny or suppress the envy. Friendships grow and deepen when each person is willing to be honest about times when they feel envious.
7. Is vulnerable.
A great friend doesn't only share what's working in his or her life, but is also willing to share the "shadow" elements. This doesn't mean getting stuck in a victim mentality where you're always complaining, but it does mean not falling prey to the cultural injunction to "put on a happy face." Even if all your friends think you have a perfect marriage, for example, you make sure you share the struggles as well.
8. Makes time to connect.
Love is action in all relationships, which means it's not enough to say I love you; you need to act in loving ways. A great friend makes time to remain connected through telephone calls and in-person dates (if it's not a long-distance friendship). And texting isn't real communication. It serves a function to communicate perfunctory information, but it doesn't build or maintain true intimacy.
9. Honors commitments.
If you say you're going to be there at 3pm, be there at 3pm. If you can't make it by then, a great friend communicates that she's going to be late. Being regularly late sends a clear message that your friend isn't important enough to honor a time commitment, even if that's not what you're trying to communicate.
10. Can tolerate another's pain.
Like #1 above, being able to tolerate your friend's pain is a rare quality. And by "tolerate," I don't mean rolling your eyes until your friend is done crying. I mean being able to hold a wide and compassionate space for your friend to go through his or her grieving process, no matter how long it takes. A great friend is able to listen to a friend crying without having to say or do anything. The silence communicates profound respect for the depth of vulnerability that your friend is trusting you enough to share with you, and a great friend holds it with care.