Hard Talks

How To Confront A Friend About Worrisome Behavior

You’ve noticed a pattern and are concerned. But this is tricky territory. Here’s how to prepare for the conversation.

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You see your buddy screwing up. Maybe he’s flirting, drinking too much, or telling questionable jokes. Maybe he’s slacking off at work or there’s a noticeable sharpness to his words when he’s talking to his spouse. Whatever the case, there’s just something you, as his friend, have noticed.

But there’s the conflict. Do you tell him? If you do, you’re going to contend with one of two things: a problem he doesn’t think he has or one that he doesn’t want to be reminded about. Either way, your concern over it is not something he’s asked for, and, even if he did, he’s still not interested.

“Many people are not nearly as open to feedback as they believe they are or like to portray themselves to be,” says Mitch Abrams, clinical psychologist in Tinton Falls and Fords, New Jersey. “We don’t like to hear what we don’t want to hear.”

There’s even more going on than merely hearing hard truths. There’s showing pain and vulnerability, and a lot of it has to be from you, and the question of what might happen afterwards.

“It’s the fear of triggering the other person and causing separation,” says Julian Redwood, a San Francisco licensed psychotherapist.

That’s the thing that’s often missed. This isn’t solely about your buddy. It’s about you and your buddy and how the problem you’re seeing is making you feel. The prospect of creating a wedge can keep you silent, but the problem will continue to exist. If you want to make things better, then you have to say something.

And while the words matter, this is more about what you convey about your feelings for him. It requires you to do some thinking as well as a willingness to withstand discomfort. Before anything, you need to figure out why you’re even talking. Here’s how to

Determine Your Intent

If you’re just pointing out a problem, your friend will react like he’s a little kid again. He’ll feel guilt and shame from being told, “You’re bad.” Rather come at it from a point of caring, and if you’re hesitant about whether you should do it, think of it as an act of loyalty. It’s like he has disease and not saying anything is like withholding the cure. “Do it, even though there’s pain,” Abrams says.

But more than caring about your buddy, what you need to figure out is why his behavior is affecting you so much. Maybe his anger reminds you of what you grew up with. Or his infidelity makes you scared that a divorce will make him disappear.

Is that selfish? Yeah, but in a good way, Redwood says. What you’re now bringing is no longer an observation and an example of how astute you are. You’re coming up with reasons why he matters to you and he might respond in kind.

“Vulnerability increases the chances that it goes somewhere,” he says.

Maximize the Odds

It’s a basic thing, but be aware of when you’re bringing it up. If your friend seems overly stressed or preoccupied, it’s probably not the best time. Think of it like dinner. “You want to plate the meal nicely but also think about what is served,” Abrams says. If you ignore that, you’re doing this for yourself and that has a higher chance of being rejected.

But while you want to find a good time, realize that it will never be perfect, or even great, because this isn’t happy news. “It will always be scary,” Redwood says.

Remember What You’ve Built

You’re going in prepared, but this is still your friend. If you’ve always been direct, even sarcastic with each other, you don’t necessarily have to stop. You can take the approach of, “Hey, you’re a great dad, but what you just said, not your best moment,” Abrams says.

But if you don’t feel that confident – and it’s easy not to – Redwood suggests starting with, “I’m struggling with something that I want to say. Are you available to listen?” You’ve asked permission, which helps make it a good time to talk, and you’ve given a heads-up that what’s coming is significant. Your friend comes in with more willingness and attention. The anxiety lessens and you’ll find the right words because you’ve set the scene.

What can further help is to qualify along the way. Like with any feedback, sandwich the “bad” around some good stuff, Abrams says, and even add, “Take it or leave it. It’s up to you,” or, “I might be wrong.” This still doesn’t guarantee anything, so …

Be Ready for the Reaction

And it could be anything. At minimum, you want the words to get through and if your friend responds with, “You think?,” consider that a victory, because, “It means they’re thinking,” Abrams says.

Redwood adds that it helps to ask, “What do you think I’m missing?” However obvious the problem appears, there’s always something you don’t know and this keeps you open and gives your friend the chance to fill out the picture.

But they might reject what you say because they don’t believe it or it’s too much right now. Let them have their feelings, however big and intense. You’ve planted the seed, and if they start defending and backing away, don’t keep attacking. “They’ll defend more,” Abrams says.

The simple move when it gets hot is to walk away and say, “Screw it.” Your friend might, but that doesn’t mean you should. When you feel stressed, focus on your breathing and try to slow down your words and lower your voice. It’s a hard thing to do, and the fear that your friendship may deteriorate will always be there, but by staying in the discomfort, you’re showing him that when things get tough, you don’t leave, and that can bring you closer.

“These conversations build trust,” Redwood says. “The key to relationships is to go towards these things, to engage in these conversations, or we end up alone.”

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