Two weeks ago we talked about a good friend being one who, in times of doubt, fear, anxiety and uncertainty, will always be there to offer support and comfort.
We then defined a true friend as one who in those challenging times, rather than offering solace, will tell us not what we want to hear but what we need to hear. The true friend may appear harsh and insensitive, but sometimes that is what is required for us to see through the mist of confusion and reach the point where objectivity prevails and provides the clarity necessary for us to take action.
Such is the case with my friend Jeff who chose to become a long overdue and badly needed true friend to his brother John after having witnessed his acts of good friendship, through several years of John’s anguish, accomplish no more than enable the continuation of John’s misery.
For more than two years, John has been extremely unhappy in his role as a senior manager with a large, multinational energy company.
John, a long time employee of the company, always assumed it would be the place from which he would, at some point in the future, gracefully retire although retirement is more than 10 years in the future.
John’s boss retired two years ago and John points to his replacement as the course of his unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Put simply, he does not get along with his new boss, disagrees with almost every decision and believes him to be both a bully and an incompetent leader.
And Jeff has been hearing about this since the day John’s current boss assumed his new role.
The brothers have long had a close relationship and no week has ever passed without at least one phone call and more likely a brief get-together over coffee or a meal.
While both brothers have families of their own, they have always enjoyed a special bond that has promoted a “best friendship” since their childhood.
And so when John began sharing his unhappiness with his brother, Jeff had been a willing and attentive listener, always there to offer support and comfort and, metaphorically, put his arm around John to assure him that everything “will be all right.”
It didn’t take long for Jeff’s work stresses to take front and centre positions at every conversation until it became the only topic discussed even at family get-togethers with spouses and kids present.
After almost 2 years of patiently listening to his brother it occurred to Jeff that three things were taking place each time they spoke:
- John’s story never changed.
- He had not and was not going to do anything other than whine and complain.
- By always being there to listen, Jeff had become John’s, “enabler-in-chief.”
And, by always being there as a good friend for his brother, he had failed to be a true friend.
Jeff decided to change his strategy and to stop listening to the story he had heard so many times he could tell it to verbatim.
The next time he heard from John and the story began, he interrupted with a script he had spent several hours preparing.
He said, “You know John, we’re brothers and I love you very much and I must apologize because I have failed you in every way a friend and brother can.
“For two years I have listened to you and I know you are extremely unhappy, but I need you to know that when we spoke last week and you were telling me, again, of how you feel about your boss and how stressed and sick you have become, that was the last time you and I were ever going to have this conversation.
“I have failed you because I’ve continually listened to you as a good friend and thereby assisted you in becoming sicker and sicker and more and more stressed. I have not interrupted you and told you what I am about to tell you now and that is, I am no longer interested in listening to your story and I only want to know, starting right now, what you are going to do about it?
“I need you to create an instant strategy, right now, as to how you are going to manage this and move forward and when you’re going to put that into action.
“If it requires confronting your boss and putting your job at risk, so be it. If it means beginning an active search for a new position, so be it. If it means documenting your concerns and take them into your boss’s boss, so be it.
“But I will only listen to you telling me what you are going to do and not listen to any more of your whining because talking about things never resolves anything until someone takes action and it is time for you to do that right now.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. It seemed to last forever, until finally, John angrily told Jeff that he obviously didn’t care and then hung up on him.
Jeff fought the urge to call his brother back and instead nervously allowed several days to pass until the phone rang and he saw John’s number on the screen.
John told him he’d been furious and it spent several hours seething and reflecting on what a miserable brother he had until it dawned on him that he had indeed been doing nothing but whining and complaining for several years, dragging everyone into his misery, while making no effort to do anything.
That very evening he began formulating a plan which he spent the next few days tweaking and the call to Jeff was to seek his help in reviewing his plan of action.
They spent more than an hour discussing his choices and the next day John began to implement what they had agreed upon.
Today, John is back in the job he loves, with good prospects for his future and reporting to a boss with whom he has a mutually respectful relationship.
In telling me the story Jeff kept berating himself for allowing his brother to live with pain for so long because he was acting as a good friend and not as a true one.
He’s now an ardent believer in providing “a good set of ears” once or twice while offering comfort and then refusing to listen further to anything other than a plan of action, regardless of how much anger it may generate.
He says he would rather a friend hate him today and love him tomorrow than love him today and hate themselves forever.
In Jeff’s view, this is the true test that measures how much and how deeply we care about others.
Till we read again.