Sub: A User’s Guide to Managing Social Distance
This is Part Two of a seven-part series published over seven consecutive weeks.
We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world,
and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.
— Robert Louis Stevenson
The next morning, as I was walking Alex to the school bus, I asked him, “Do you remember this past weekend when Chloe was trying to play with you and Chris? What happened when you guys didn’t want to play with her? What did she do?”
“She kept trying to play with us,” he replied.
“And how did you and Chris feel about that?”
“We didn’t want to play with her, especially when she kept asking us,” he shared.
“You are right,” I said. “That is exactly how that group of kids feels about you when they tell you they don’t want to play with you and you keep asking them.”
He stopped and looked at me.
Change the Game
“If you ignore them,” I continued, “then after a few days or a week they may want to play with you again. Even if they don’t, you can go find other kids to play with or read a book by yourself.”
“That’s exactly what happened with Chloe,” he beamed. “When she got tired of trying to play with us and ignored us on Saturday night and went upstairs, then on Sunday morning we wanted to play a really cool game with her.”
“That’s how people are,” I confided. “Sometimes they want to play with you and sometimes they don’t. Instead of always trying to play with the same kids, you can decide to only play with kids who show you they want to play with you. The other kids you can ignore until they want to play with you again.”
“What if they never want to play with me again?” he questioned.
“Then they were never your friends. You can save your energy to play with other kids who can become true friends and leave those ones alone. When you try to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be your friend, you are wasting your valuable time that you could be spending with someone who likes you and wants to be your friend. Besides, you can always play with your Mommy and Chloe and I, we will always love you and want to be your friends.”
Adults No Better
The acrimony Alex was experiencing at school did not seem far removed from what we adults are presently experiencing. Our world has never been this polarized. And in times of crisis, anxiety surges, often devolving into depression. This creates an immense challenge, as anxiety enhances our need for affiliation with others.
Given this increased need to develop fulfilling relationships and the challenges we experience attempting to satisfying this need—which have created unprecedented levels of loneliness—what can we do to maintain our sanity?
Let Go of Your Preconceived Notions Associated with Any Specific Friendship
One way to cross these more rigid bridges between ourselves and others is to be empathetic about what the other person is experiencing and allow them the space to experience it. When we insist that a friend act a certain way or maintain a certain level of closeness with us when they need space, we push them away.
Instead, we can visualize our social life as a stage where each of our friends enters and exits as they please.
Our role in a friendship is not to demand a certain social distance; instead, it is merely to welcome with love and compassion and warmth and acceptance those who step onto our stage. There are some friends who need to leave our stage for a while or even forever. We can choose to appreciate the time during which they were in our lives.
We can make the decision to let go of our psychological friendship schemas—our entrenched ways of thinking about friendship—that dictate how a friend should act. We can recognize that these habitual mental models have been influenced by the preconceived social distance we desire with each friend, family member and person in our social milieu.
We desperately hold onto a desired level of closeness in any specific relationship—until it becomes a social expectation. Why? To keep our loneliness at bay, especially in these challenging times.
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.