For the past few years, I have often neglected people close to me in the pursuit of my own endeavors. For example, my family rarely gets to see or hear from me, maybe once a month. It takes the occasional gatherings, such as this past Thanksgiving holiday, to really spend some quality time with them. I know I should make an effort to be around them often, or at least call, but I’ll make up some excuse or forget to do it entirely. I’m not a thoughtless person; I think of it in hindsight, but I am at fault. You don’t even want to hear about how I’ve neglected friends.
This last year, out of practicality, necessity, and taking a really hard look at myself, I made a few changes that has had a tremendous impact. One of these changes was to spend meaningful time with friends, even if its just for an hour. A few years back, there was this segment from The Daily Show about true friendship versus Myspace friends. The professor interviewed made a good point there was not enough time to keep up with 9000 online friends. Knowing there’s a finite amount of time, instead of spending a mindless weekend playing video games or watching the same Youtube clip over again, I chose to cut that out and try to schedule time to spend with those who have touched me in some significant way.
It wasn’t easy to start. There was an internal struggle undermining my efforts, a resistance if you may. This resistance questioned all of my actions. “Do you think they will even answer you? You’ve neglected them for so long.” That resistance subsided the more people I reached out to when I got replies back. Some other factors were scheduling issues and lack of contact information. But as I slowly trudged along, calling up friends that I cared about, I started to realize this was a possible endeavor, even if the circumstances to meet up are difficult.
I owe a lot of thanks to my friends and family who put up with my silence. When I started talking to my friends about reaching out to people close to them, I was surprised at how many of them said the same thing. “I suck at reaching out to people.” Usually, I would get some follow-up. “How do you do it?” Honestly, I have been struggling with how to answer that question. Not practicing the skill of reaching out for so long, I had to re-learn some things that we all think are common sense. Here’s some tips though.
Work on their schedule. When you make it easier on them, they don’t have to put as much effort. If you want, go the extra step and make it close to them as well. The more you cater to their needs, the more they just can’t say no. Of course, I say this with a bit of precaution. Don’t over-do yourself with a relationship that takes but never gives back.
It’s not all about you. I think the number one thing turn-off is someone’s lack of empathy. The act of listening is as important if not more than the act of talking. When we feel listened to, we feel more appreciated.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Short messages do not constitute a genuine connection. Sherry Turkle, teacher at MIT, remarked at her Ted Talk that all those little tweet-sized messages do not amount to one real conversation. Texting back and forth may be okay for some quick Q&A, but it does not substitute for real conversations and connections. Online dating is nothing but messaging back and forth until that first date. It’s only then when you start to see if there’s real connection.
Don’t forget to thank them. If you really value their time and if you really enjoy hanging out with them, don’t forget to thank them.
Don’t put off following up. After the initial meet-up, be the better person and follow-up. I don’t think I ever had this right growing up. My family never made thank-you letters for gifts they would receive. I would receive thank you letters and I felt like an asshole because it was one-sided, like I was not gratuitous in this exchange. I was the taker in this relationship. Of course, I did say thank you when I received presents, but the letters meant something else. This person took the extra step to really say thank you and somehow, that means more than simply saying thank you. I took that feeling and I started my annual Christmas Card tradition two years ago, and I haven’t looked back.
Last week, I attended TedxSanJoseStateUniversity and was really moved by Chi-Wen Chang’s talk. He was inspirational because for all of his short-comings, he was able to still add value to other’s lives, as a father, teacher, and phenomenal speaker (he sang at the end of his talk and it was very endearing). He said for over a decade, he would call up and sing happy birthday to people he kept in touch with. My god, the effort. Taking that advice in and seeing what I’m doing, I know I can do more, and I strive to try to also add value to the people I care about. Saying thanks is one of the first steps, and keeping in touch are the next steps.
Chi-Wen Chang, shown above at the Tedx event at San Jose State University.