Choose your friends wisely

A common theme in the psychology literature is the distinction between introverts and extroverts. The former tend to prefer their own company and see social interaction as a necessary evil, rather than something to be enjoyed. The latter, by contrast, are likely to seek out and cherish social contact and may not feel comfortable when alone. These ideas have been very influential, despite the fact that they (the popularised versions at least): (i) take no account of the social circumstances (the role of culture, for example) that can be so influential in shaping behaviour and social interactions; and (ii) also tend to polarize people (that is, put them at one extreme or the other, without recognizing that people can be located along a continuum from one extreme to the other (and will move along that line in different circumstances or at different times).

What they represent is a tension around social distance. That is, certain people at certain times will feel that they are too closely connected to others and will want more personal space (traditionally, the introvert stance). Other people at other times will crave less social distance – that is, they will want as much social contact as possible (traditionally, the extrovert stance). Imagine somebody being upset for some reason (they have been offended perhaps). Some people will want to be alone and will find other people’s presence uncomfortable, while others would seek out other people’s presence, as that would help them start to regain their emotional balance.

There is no right or wrong about these things; it is about what works when and for whom. So, what does this mean about choosing friends? Basically, it means that, in making friends with people, we are taking risks. The more friends you have, the more support you potentially have available and the more opportunities for social interaction. But, it also means that the more opportunities there are for people to let you down, a higher chance of conflict arising and the greater the potential for your personal space to be intruded upon.

Much will depend on how important each of these different factors are to you. People with extrovert tendencies may operate on the basis of the more friends the better, and thereby increase the chances of the negative possibilities creeping in. People with introvert tendencies, by contrast, are likely to be more selective in who they accept, or seek out, as friends, and could therefore lose out in terms of missing opportunities for potentially fruitful friendships. This is yet another example of the importance of balance.

Much will also depend on where along that continuum your friends tend to hang out. For example, an extrovert person may find having extrovert friends a blessing and may find introverted friends hard work. Likewise, an introvert person may struggle with too many extrovert friends because they may take up too much of his or her personal space, but may feel very comfortable with fellow introverts.

Thinking in these terms won’t give you a formula for choosing your friends wisely, but it should give you some helpful food for thought.

The existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that hell is other people, meaning that other people can so easily get in our way, frustrate us or generally cause us problems. He had a point, of course, but what he didn’t say is that heaven is, or can be, other people too. That is why friends are so important and valuable to us, and that is also why it is so important to choose our friends wisely. We don’t have complete control over who does or does not become our friend, but don’t make the mistake of thinking we don’t have any.

Find the small things that make a big difference

If you cast your mind back to science lessons at school, you will probably remember learning about leverage. That is, you will have learned that a pivot or fulcrum can enable us greater lifting power – it gives us leverage. This can also apply in a more indirect, metaphorical sense. This is what I mean by the small things that can make a big difference.

Smiling is a simple, but important example. Trite though it may seem, interacting with people with a smile on our face can make a huge difference to how we are perceived and how people respond to us (although it has to be a genuine smile and not a forced one). Another case in point would be using someone’s name when talking to them. This can make a very positive difference when it comes to forming a rapport and winning trust, although it has to be done sensitively – unlike the salesman who once added my name to every sentence. I was tempted to ask him which training course he had been on that had advised him to use people’s name to try and ‘seal the deal’. Of course, it did the precise opposite; it wrecked any possible deal.

But, it isn’t just in direct personal interactions that we can use this leverage. I was lucky enough to find early in my career that following something up in writing could make a huge difference. For example, if I was trying to encourage someone to undertake a particular task or move in a particular direction, I found that reinforcing my message in writing significantly increased the chances of success. It was as if the authority of the printed word added extra emphasis to the message I had been giving verbally.

In my education and training work, what I have also discovered is that helping people adopt self-directed learning can make a huge difference to their development. Most people allow others (teachers, trainers, tutors, managers) to be in control of their learning. Taking hold of your own learning, putting yourself in the driving seat is a small move, but with huge potential consequences, as self-directed learning, tailored to your own specific needs, is by far the most effective form of learning.

There is no standard, set list of the small things that can make a big difference. These will vary from setting to setting, situation to situation, person to person. Consequently, if you are to get the benefits of this, you will need to think the issues through for yourself. Of course, the examples I have given should point you in the right direction and give you a foundation to build on.

This will involve thinking about the sorts of situation you tend to find yourself in (whether in your working life or private life). What are the things that cause you most difficulty or take up most resources to deal with? These are the situations where making a positive change could make a big difference and produce very positive results. Are there any changes you could make (any pivots you could take advantage of) that would be small in themselves, but big in terms of the difference they make. Do give it a try as it is surprising how often small changes can make a big difference – as my advisory and consultancy work has shown me time and time again.

You don’t have to be alone in doing this. Discuss it with friends and/or colleagues, see what they think, see how you can help each other (they may come up with things you may never have thought of, and vice versa).