Calling all men
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
An awkwardness-free approach
to deeper friendships
Something remarkable started happening recently.
I am fortunate to have a great group of male friends, colleagues, and coaching clients, with whom I get to enjoy deeper-than-average conversations on a fairly regular basis. And within just a few months, every one of them voiced the exact same concern with me. Every. Single. One.
I want a more meaningful connection with my guy friends, but I don’t know how to make it happen. I’m afraid they don’t feel the same way.
While I’ve always prided myself on being able to spot subtle trends, this one was anything but subtle. It smacked me right in the face. Sure, you could argue that I have a pretty self-selecting group of high-EQ guys in my circle (and you’d be right - they’re great) but what they’re expressing is an absolutely fundamental human need that too often gets suppressed among men. Plus, if they’re stumped on this one, I can’t imagine how lost everyone else must be.
Now I realize that it’s in vogue to blame all of society’s problems on men’s repressed emotional needs, but that’s not where I’m going here. Most of the writing on “toxic masculinity” that I see swirling around the internet preaches to the choir: liberal, educated women (my people!) sounding the alarm to a readership of other liberal, educated women, warning that unless boys are taught to recognize and embrace their emotions from an early age, we will keep getting victimized and sucked into outrageous foreign and domestic conflicts ad infinitum. I do believe there is a lot of truth there, and it’s an important message. But what’s anybody actually supposed to do with that? Most men (and plenty of women) are grappling with a much milder, sub-acute pain of disconnection, and only addressing this issue as a scapegoat for sociopolitical tragedy can be pretty alienating.
What I’d like to add to that conversation is something a little more relatable and actionable. And I want to speak directly to the men out there - to dispel some myths around your need for connection, and give practical tips on how to actually get more of it in your friendships. So, guys, pull up a chair and get comfortable.
(Fun fact to lighten the mood: a friend who's experiencing this conundrum himself has a knack for catchy phrasing, so I asked him to toss out some title ideas for this article. Without a moment’s hesitation, he offered: “Want to be deep inside another man? Learn how!”) So without further ado...
Your friends all want more meaningful connection, too.
Literally, all of them do. I can say this confidently because 1) I’ve talked to them and 2) they are humans with a prefrontal cortex.
The disappointment you sometimes feel when your hangouts just revolve around going to a deafening bar and complaining about your boss again...when the conversation never makes it deeper than the new TV show you discovered, or the complications with your mortgage, or the video game you’re really into right now - you’re not the only one wishing there was more substance.
While you may feel somewhat alien for having this desire for deeper connection with your friends, it’s not because they feel any differently than you do. It’s because they’re either in denial about it, or are exactly as nervous and unsure as you are about how to take things to the next level. All of you are hoping someone else is gonna make the first move.
Vulnerability is a prerequisite for meaningful relationships.
If you want powerful friendships, there is truly no way around being vulnerable. I think this is why intense friendship comes so naturally to most women: feminine vulnerability, often misconstrued as weakness, is culturally lauded and at times it seems like we are actually in a competition to out-vulnerable each other in our girlfriend circles. But vulnerability is not synonymous with weakness; it just means sharing the real, unvarnished life shit: where you came from, where you’re going, and the joys and the stumbles along the way.
You know this. Think about the deep connections you do already have in your life: maybe your romantic partner, your brother, or that one friend you’ve known since kindergarten. What do they all have in common? They see the big picture of the journey you’re on. Most importantly, they have seen the actual best and the worst in you, not just the heavily edited resumé version of you - and they chose to stick around anyway.
The bad news is that, as adults, it’s harder to drum up friendships of that intensity. After all, you don’t have decades of memories and shared experiences to fall back on with most people you meet and want to hang out with. The good news is that there are ways to shortcut that process - it just takes some courage and intention.
Do not expect to receive what you have not first given.
If you’ve accepted the notion that your desire for deeper friendships is normal and that it’s going to take some vulnerability to get there, the next step is to give it a shot. As the person reading this article, chances are you’re a little more self-aware and emotionally mature than some of your friends. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility.
This means it’s on you - yes, you - to make the first move.
The guys I’ve talked to about this typically react with cringey panic when I get to this part. The execution seems unthinkably awkward, at least until I explain that I’m not suggesting some sort of bro version of a marriage proposal.
We’re aiming for genuine, subtle, and naturally-flowing conversational tweaks here. Your friend-target should ultimately leave the conversation not thinking anything unusual or major has changed in your relationship. Your goal is simply to share a little more about yourself, and to make them feel really heard. This then builds on itself over time. So how do you do that?
Start sharing and asking about the story underneath the surface.
I suggest starting with an incredibly simple formula:
Begin noticing when you or your friend-target is relaying information that might have some emotional weight (positive or negative) behind it. Hint: most things fall into this category.
Say whatever you would normally say, but then add another sentence after it, sharing or inquiring what’s important about that thing.
If you’re the listener, bonus points for reflecting back and validating what your friend just said.
You say: “I’m interviewing for a promotion next week. We’ll see how it goes.”
Add: “Honestly I’m not sure if it’s the best fit for me, but we’ve had a lot of medical bills this year and the extra income would really help right now.” Or “I’ve been wanting to grow my management skills because I realized that’s what I’m really passionate about, and my new boss would be a great person to learn from,” etc.
See what you’ve done there? The first part was easy transactional information that you probably would’ve been fine telling any stranger on the street. By stretching just a little to add the second piece, you’ve brought your friend-target into your confidence, given them some insight into your current situation and thought process, and handed them something meaningful to work with in the rest of the conversation. Most people will be honored to be brought into your circle of trust, and it sends a signal that your defenses are down and you’re open to receive whatever they may have to share.
Your friend-target says: “I’m interviewing for a promotion next week. We’ll see how it goes.”
You reply: “Wow that’s awesome, congrats.”
Add: “Tell me about the new job...what about it would be exciting for you?”
Here, you’re validating their achievement in landing the interview, but more importantly, opening the door for them to explain their hopes and motivation. Open-ended questions are powerful ways to learn more about your friend, often leading down rich, new conversational paths you wouldn’t have expected. Questions like that also show that you are genuinely interested in their world and views. It feels great to be on the receiving end of such attention.
You don’t need to plan specific hangout sessions dedicated to sitting in a cafe and sharing feelings with your friends. If you’re into that, great. Most of the time though, it’ll be more realistic (and fun) to sprinkle this in with whatever activities you normally do together. Whether it’s playing basketball or pool or video games or during your lunch break with your coworkers, any regular conversation is a great opportunity to casually sprinkle in this new approach.
Check your expectations. Just because your friends also want more meaningful interaction doesn’t mean they will react in exactly the way you hoped for.
The minor conversational tweaks I suggested are pretty safe and unobjectionable, so you’re hopefully not feeling overexposed no matter how your conversation partner reacts. It’s also, of course, a good idea to practice this at first with people you think are probably on the same page as you.
Let’s say you give the formula a shot, but you feel like you’re hitting a brick wall. How ever your friend-target responded to your attempt wasn’t what you hoped for. This happens sometimes, and it’s probably not because they secretly don’t care about you at all.
Still, if this is a new muscle you’re just starting to exercise, it can be pretty surprising and hurtful if you’re not well-received. If this happens, I suggest that you try to not to label it as “rejection” (you have no idea what’s actually going on in their head) and instead welcome the experience, because it is a great learning opportunity to:
Evaluate what your unspoken expectations of the interaction/relationship were
Get curious about what’s going on for the person you’re talking to. Are they just tired? Distracted? Drunk? So unaccustomed to active listening that they simply don’t know how to respond effectively?
Observe your own reaction to vulnerability. Do you get pissed off? Defeated? Shut down? What's behind your reaction, and is it serving you?
There’s no wrong answer to any of this. You are offering your friend the gift of your active presence. Just as you are practicing being authentic with them, their authentic response might not be what you built it up in your head to be. Either way, you are brave and growing for having given it a shot. If it’s worth it to you to keep trying again later with that person, great. If you decide your efforts are better directed at a friend-target who’s better equipped to reciprocate, great.
Also, be aware that steering a relationship into deeper waters is a very real form of emotional labor. As with any kind of labor, it can get tiring to put yourself out there all the time (think how exhausting dating is). Make sure you start with promising friend-targets, pace yourself, and take breaks when you need them. Relationships worth having take time. So trust in yourself and in the process, without stressing or attempting to over-engineer the outcome.
Bonus: don’t conflate connection and romance.
Many of you have been trying to content yourselves with what feels like an unsatisfying emotional life, in which your only deep connections come through your romantic relationships. (Note: my sample population is almost exclusively heterosexual males and the perspective here reflects that.) It’s usually easier for men to open up to women, especially within a sexual relationship, because emotional sharing is often rewarded by women.
If the only time you have emotionally disclosed is in a romantic context, the sensations of sharing and attraction can get very tightly paired - even to the point of one triggering the other (think Pavlov’s dogs). Feeling truly seen and heard is rare for most of us and can be a powerful intoxicant. While it’s a beautiful thing when connection and sexual attraction co-exist, and they often do, they are ultimately two distinct phenomena that deserve independent exploration in different contexts.
This is ultimately a win-win, because deepening your friendships will also do wonders for your romantic relationship. From your partner’s perspective, it is an enormous responsibility to be your sole source of emotional nourishment. From your perspective, relying on your partner to be your all-purpose conduit of intense connection is setting both of you up for the failure of unrealistic expectations. No single person can fulfill all your needs. Diversify your platonic connection portfolio and you’ll enjoy richer and more relaxed relationships in all areas of your life.
I love to hear stories about how great friendships got started. Send me yours, or any emotional connection tips that have worked for you!