A college student is frustrated that her older friend does all the talking.

Our elder has some advice on how to open up the conversation.

Dear EWC

Hello, I’m at 21-year-old college student. At the school I attend I have met one of my greatest friends and she is 37. You would never know that she is 37, though; she just doesn’t seem like it in her personality. In the time that I’ve had friendship with her, I’ve found myself being extremely disappointed and a bit frustrated with how things go in our friendship. I feel that I spend most of my time listening to her talk about her life, and her issues. While I don’t mind listening to her, I get tired of it! And I feel reluctant to tell her even how I’m doing. There have been times when I’ve been talking, but somehow it just seems as if the conversation comes right back to her. There have also been times when I’ve told her something… but then she completely forgets, and what I shared with her was extremely personal. We’ve been friends for a little over two years, and I guess that when I think about our friendship it makes me mad. I don’t want to hold in everything that I feel, but I’m also afraid to tell her, because I’m not sure if she’ll respond very well to it… she’s pretty sensitive. Any advice you have, I’m willing to try

Dirk replies

Thanks for your letter. As you have discovered in some friendships, individuals assume roles at a very early point and stay in those roles for the duration of the friendship. Those kinds of friendship work well for many, particularly it seems between people in specific roles i.e. office workers, older people or people who come together for a specific issue i.e. parents supporting a class trip or project. The key for most of these situations is that each person has something specific to offer to the other i.e. expertise, and the other person may willingly play a supporting role in order to get the task done even if that person favors a different approach to the work.

Another type of friendship forms when two people do not seem to have some overriding tasks to do but for some reason find each other’s company interesting and/or useful. After some time each finds the other pretty predictable in where conversations go, the roles played in those conversations, and their outcomes. Often, I think some married couples slip into those roles. For any of these relationships to remain fresh, and grow, one or both parties have to try to make some changes to the “routine.” It could be helpful to you to try to define the role that your friend seems to be assuming with you. Is she the big sister? Mother? Teacher? Know-it-all?

For you to try to find a more equal basis for conversation you have to get her to talk about interests and issues that are on your mind. Given her sensitivity, you may not want to start by just raising the issue. She either will get upset or she will revert to her “preachy” role. Rather, ask her specific questions and observe the role she is playing. For example, you might ask her what classes should you consider taking next term.  Stay on that subject and see if see stays on the subject. After a few days try another, more personal question, and even follow up with questions on the same subject and note how she handles that conversation. If she handles the answers well, thank her. Repeat the process a few days later and see if it gets her interested in talking about your issues. If she does well, I think you have learned that she needs to be directed a little, or she will revert to her earlier behaviors.

If she does not focus on answering the questions, you have specific situations to illustrate why she is ignoring you. Bring one to her attention by saying something like, “When I asked about courses that you think I should be taking next term, you responded by changing the subject.” “The effect on me was that you were not taking me and what was important to me seriously.”

The advantage to this approach is that you are dealing with a specific situation—in this case a question. She cannot dispute that. Then her behavior was observed by you—she changed the subject to something about herself. She cannot deny facts.  Then explain to her that you want her to hear things that are on your mind just as you do with her. If she argues that the facts of what you said and what you observed about her behavior are not true, then you two have issues that may not get solved.

Helping someone change a behavior is difficult as you know. The suggestions which I provided above often work. In some cases, however, they are not in and of themselves enough. It may take your friend to learn that others share your view of her before she begins to change. It also may take you to tell her that you care enough about her that you know that you are risking your friendship with her when you are giving her feedback. Even that may not be enough to get her to change.

I hope that she begins to become more interested in what you have to share.

Letter #: 421798

Category: Friendship

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