We all long for meaningful friendships, but how do you know if a friendship is emotionally safe? In today's podcast, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff discuss what emotionally safe, deep and genuine friendships look like and how to cultivate healthy friendships.
Chris Grace: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. I'm Chris Grace.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm Tim Muelhlhoff.
Chris Grace: We get to come to you again from Biola University and our Center for Marriage & Relationships. Tim, we started talking last time about friendships. There is a lot to cover. It's such a amazing and important topic. The importance of friendships in our lives cannot be overestimated.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.
Chris Grace: It just simply is the thing that sustains a lot of us and keeps us going. Talk about friendships today. Let's spend some more time talking about them. What do you think?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. We mentioned last podcast that this is one of the most requested topics that we get from listeners because everybody wants friendships. Everybody longs for friendships. We've been tackling some questions that we've been getting, and you had a great one.
Chris Grace: Yeah. Basically the question says this, "What are characteristics of good, healthy friendships? What makes a friendship healthy?" The first thing that stands out to me, I would say this. It feels like a healthy friendship is one that is emotionally safe. What I mean by that is I could be vulnerable in a friendship. I could say things that aren't good about me. I could express some things that I don't feel good about myself, and yet I know in a friendship, Tim, I could tell you. We've had some talks, and I've shard some things, and I know that I'll still be accepted. I know that I can make a mistake and not be judged. I know that I can speak openly about my thoughts and emotions, and to me, that means I can be myself. I can feel heard when I express my feelings. I can feel that idea, and it's just safe for me.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. We actually phrase it, a couple of my friends, "Hey, can I share a heresy with you?" Right? I mean, it's like okay I know this is and I'm still in process. Don't hold me to any of this, and I get that I'm probably even going to disagree with myself tomorrow, but today can I just float this idea and not just get the standard Christian answer or, "Hey, you shouldn't be thinking that way." I know I shouldn't be thinking that way. That's why I said, "Can I share a heresy with you?" Your friends allow you to be in process, Chris, and I think that's the greatest benefit with being emotionally safe is. I'm still working this out, and I get that what I'm about to say can be a little unsettling, but I got to talk to somebody about it.
Chris Grace: Yeah, then, on the positive side of that, right, an emotionally safe friendship is something that you, it's marked by things like warmth or delight or sympathy, and it's free then from some of the negative interactions, jealousy or criticism or defensiveness. I think that idea is what is so attractive about being able to be yourself with somebody, and to find that joy and that delight with somebody. That a good one. Another quality. Healthy friendships besides emotionally safe, we would say health friendships are something that are marked by being enjoyable. Right? They're are more smiles, more fun, and more delight than there would be discontent or disappointment. Right? There's more giving than taking.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.
Chris Grace: You feel comfortable and vulnerable. You laugh easy. That idea of being, a healthy relationship, a healthy friendship should be marked by enjoyment. That just makes sense.
Tim Muehlhoff: Here's where I'd like to get your thoughts on this. Sometimes these relationships are safe and enjoyable because you purposely do not bring up certain topics.
Chris Grace: Sure, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I would call it a pseudo-safe relationship. We have this safety because I'm just letting a lot of things go by, and I'm not choosing to because I lack the confidence that our friendship could survive it. I've had friendships in the past that I did bring up a topic. I did sit down with that person and it did not go well. I can think of one or two friendships that just didn't survive that. It is interesting. A true friendship would be one where you kind of I think tested the waters. Do you think you could have a good strong friendship without ever having a disagreement, Chris?
Chris Grace: Well, I think what ends up happening is you're going to just by the very nature of what intimacy is with design bite, we're just different. We're going to almost always run into areas and times in which we disagree. I think it's the nature of that disagreement, the way it's navigated and the way it's handled. I think most friendships are going to have to, at some point, wade into those waters. If not, I think you're right. They're probably not very deep waters then. If you're unable to have a conversation that's hard or heartfelt or difficult or a point of tension, then maybe it's not as deep a friendship as you thought.
Tim Muehlhoff: I have a circle of friends and you're part of this circle, though I have to see how today goes, that we generally agree on things is what I would say. Generally agree politically, theologically, that kind of stuff. Now, I do have one friend what we just naturally disagree. I enjoy that friendship, but we have to work hard at it. We have to make sure that we're affirming each other because theologically we really disagree about certain things. Politically we really disagree. I'm not saying that a friendship like that can't happen, but you have to do extra work at it to make sure that we're okay. I'd say the majority of my friends, we just laugh, and there's a lot of agreement and laughter, but I think it's possible to have those friendships where you do disagree a lot but you have to do relational maintenance.
Chris Grace: Yeah, you do. I think it goes back to that idea too that if the primary way of interacting in a friendship is fondness and kindism. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis said this, "Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives. It does not expect too much, turns a blind eye to faults, and revives easily after quarrels." Even in disagreements, what happens is this affection that we feel for others is responsible for a lot of the happiness in C.S. Lewis. Right? That's also the idea of James 1:19, where friends are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, that's good.
Chris Grace: That idea. Then, a third maybe notion of healthy friendships is one that we're talking about a little bit here is that healthy friendships are trusting. I think that there's this idea that there's not only a care for each other but there's an expectation of longevity. Right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Chris Grace: A sense of our future together, and I trust that. A friendship, a good healthy friendship is usually marked by this thing called honesty and trustworthiness. Right? Paul said, "We look for the interest of others. Regard them as more important than ourselves." I think when you both have a friendship that's healthy, you share and listen to each other's problems, but you know I'm making an investment, and this is going to be something that I'm going to stay with. This idea of trustworthiness is a very important feature, that idea of a sense of a future together.
Tim Muehlhoff: That that person's in your corner. I think that's huge. As we go through life, we all take risks. I say to one of my kids who right now is studying to take the LSAT. I love this one quote, "Nerves are the price a race horse pays for not being a milk cow."
I love that quote. In other words, you want to live a life that doesn't have any nervousness or take risks, be a milk cow. If you're going to be a race horse, dude, that's just part of it. Friends, and again we're in academia trying to write books. We're trying to get articles published. We're trying to start a center, and there's ups and downs and bumps along the road. You need those friends who are in your corner to say, "Hey, you can do this. All right, you got rejected by this publisher. So what, man? Keep going." It's what we talked about in the last podcast as well. You need a person to step up and say, eventually, "Tim, I do not think you're going to pay shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. I think that ship has sailed." You generally expect your friends to say, "Come on, man. Don't get discouraged. Keep going. You can do this. You can do graduate education. You can do this. You can raise those kids." All that kind of stuff. Friends are huge.
Chris Grace: Hey, Tim. Here's another question that we get asked. Someone wrote in, "How can we become more aware of how body language, facial expressions, tone of voice affect our communication with others?" What do you think?
Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, to quote from your field. Here's a quote from Freud, "If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips. Betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." I love Freud. When means you're not talking audibly, man, you're speaking volumes. We have this saying in communication theory, "You cannot not communicate." Even if you choose to be silent, your silence speaks volumes. To answer this question, we have a principle in communication theory called perception checking. The reason perception checking is huge is I do read into your non-verbals, and I read a ton into them. I'm sure Chris, you and I have so many studies when it come to this, but we are wrong a lot of the time in reading each other's non-verbals.
One man did a study. He's discovered that one cue thought to give away that people are lying is shifty eyes, but he found that that's actually false. It's not a good indicator whether a person is lying, but I could look at you shifting you eyes and think, oh man, Chris is lying to me. What's going on? One, I don't even know my non-verbals, Chris. I'm not aware of how I'm coming across non-verbally, and yet my wife, you, students read into my non-verbals volumes.
Chris Grace: You know, that idea is big area for us in social psychology. What does non-verbal signs mean? Can you tell if somebody is not being honest with you? As you mentioned, Tim, we did get distracted by the strangest thing. Somebody's fidgety. Somebody is moving or adjusting their hair or their glasses or their. What happens is people just are different, and we can barely read something accurately. I remember one study that looked at how those who are really good at non-verbal interpretation or language, what they looked for and what they found. They found that those who are best at it, who have been even trained in this, saw that the most telling difference or that someone might have been deceiving them was the difference between what they were saying, their words, and the emotions on their face. There's a disconnect. They might be saying one thing, their lips, but their emotions show something else.
That disconnect is probably something that we pay attention to like, "This doesn't make a lot of sense." Non-verbal is an amazing area of study, but that idea of how we communicate that with friendships really begins to give us this sense that this person is with me, they care for me, even without them saying a word. Remember Job's friends sat there for three days. That's a non-verbal message that, "I'm here with you. We're not leaving."
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm hungry, and I want to be fed. Just keep in mind is what I need to tell myself is that, most of us if these studies are true, we wildly overestimate my ability to read another person's non-verbals. Again, I think this is a broader issue, Chris. If my friendship with a person is strong, good, healthy, vibrant, then I will look at their non-verbals and interpret them in a positive way. If there's tension between us, boy, that colors your perception, and now I start to read into your non-verbals negatively. Right? Man, we just got to be careful. If ever there was an area where you want to check your perceptions with another person, it is here. To say to a person, "Hey, you just seem a little tired." "Oh, no. I'm sorry. I'm just distracted about something happening at work." Boy, it's important to clarify.
Chris Grace: It is. To pay attention to how we feel and being honest about it, but it takes a little bit of time and insight to be able to say, "You know what? This is really bothering me right now. I'm distracted by something." I think you're right, Tim. I think we need this ability to pause sometimes and figure out our own hearts because we're always going to communicate. You can't not communicate, right, as you said.
Tim Muehlhoff: I did debate and competitive speech in college. That's how I got through college. When I graduated, I would be a judge at some of these tournaments, and one event is actually called After Dinner Speaking. It was made popular by Mark Twain. It is persuading people with humor. As you sit down to judge, you're really judging two things. One, you're judging the content of the speech. It has to have content. This can't be standup comedy. Second, are you using humor to persuade us on certain points? Well, Chris, I would go in as a judge, and I would just be sitting. You have to actually fill out a page justifying the scores that you're giving a person. Honestly, I'm literally writing, "Hey, this is really funny. I think this is really good. This is great." I'm not laughing out loud.
I later was approached by another judge who said, "Hey, Tim. Can I give you one piece of advice as a judge?" I said, "Sure." Said, "Listen, these students are living and dying watching you as they're giving their speech. As you're sitting there writing, just throw out a laugh every once in a while. If you think it is truly funny, just throw out a laugh every once in a while because they're reading that you don't think this is funny at all." I'm actually literally writing, "Hey, that was a really funny joke." I was just paying attention and concentrating on being a judge. Man, again we read into these things in a job interview, when we're asking a person out on a date, when we're giving a presentation, so we got to tone down our expectations of what non-verbals are communicating to us.
Chris Grace: Yeah. You know, there's Tim some studies that have shown that a lot of our communication can be miscommunication. Alright? Because there's so many different messages that when two people talk. Right? These eight possible messages going, it starts like this. I remember studying this idea of a conversation. There are eight messages that can be communicated even right now. What I intend to say is number one. What I actually said, what I think I said. Then, you add in what the other person hears, what he other person thinks he heard, what the other person intends to say, what the other person actually says, and then what the other person thinks he said. Those are eight different messages that can get through. It's not doubt that a lot of our communication is actually miscommunication.
Tim Muehlhoff: This is why I write books on communication, Chris. This is job security. What you just said is, think of all the things that can go wrong. I love number three, is what I think I said. Come on. I was just clear as a bell, and you didn't get the message? That's insanity.
Chris Grace: Yeah. I remember one night it was a really warm, hot night, and it was in July. We're laying in bed. I'm laying next to Lisa. I say this, I just say to her, "You're hot." She says, "Scoot over." I'm thinking, what does that mean? I don't know what that means. What I intended to say was, here the eight message. I intended to say, "You're hot." I intend to say, "I love you." What I actually said was, "You're hot." Right? What I think I said was, "I love you, you sexy thing." Right? What Lisa heard was, "You're hot." What she thinks she heard was a complaint about her body temperature. Right? She intends to say, "Wow, you complain a lot." What she actually says is, "Scoot over." What she thinks she said was, "Leave me alone." Right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Chris Grace: What I think she said was, "Come get me, you sexy thing." Four words. Right? "You're hot," "Scoot over." I think this idea then of these eight messages, Tim, they really are part of this friendship miscommunication and communication and the way in which we have to navigate this world by reading and understanding the heart, the intent, the context in the non-verbals.
Tim Muehlhoff: This is why the Book of Proverbs says, "Life and death is the power of the tongue."
Chris Grace: That's right.
Tim Muehlhoff: Again, we can actually impart death and not know it. You and I have quick senses of humor where that humor can really hurt people in ways that we just never intended. There's that moment where it's going to be funny, and it's not going to be funny three seconds later. You say it, and yeah.
Chris Grace: I think in that regard, Tim, understanding and being aware of our deep emotions, our affect, how something is affecting us, and then being able to talk about that is a great way,
Tim Muehlhoff: I would say because, man, this is just hilarious to listen to what you just said, because of all the room for miscommunication. Here's what I think friends give us. Don't you think, Chris, friends mostly give us the benefit of the doubt?
Chris Grace: I think that's a great, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: You know what I mean?
Chris Grace: I believe so. Yup.
Tim Muehlhoff: I can screw up in a ton of different ways. My friends say, "I know, Tim." Even as they say, "Hey, dude, you want to re-clarify what you just said? Did you mean to say that?" Again, that's what I think friends do, is the benefit of the doubt. When that's lacking, I think the friendship is on a little bit of a negative spiral, and you go to address it. Why do I no longer believe the best about you? Those are interesting, great questions. What forms of self-deception might happen in a friendship, and how does it affect our communication with our friends?
Well, let me jump in from the field of communication. We have something, and Chris, we borrow this from psychology. It's called the self-serving bias. Here's how the self-serving bias works. Let's say, Chris, you and me have a lunch appointment, and I miss it for whatever reason. When I explain to you why I missed it, I will say, "Hey, it's because I had all these crazy things happen at work. My schedule's been really crazy. I had a hair appointment." Listeners know I'm bald. It's always something external is why I didn't make the appointment. The next week, we re-schedule. The next week, you miss it. I, applying the self-serving bias, do not afford you external reasons. I immediately assume it was internal character reasons like Chris doesn't care about the friendship, Chris doesn't care about being on time. What do you mean, you blow off a lunch? That is called the self-serving bias. I always give myself the perpetual out. I never stop to think, hey, Tim are there character issues happening within me, why I'm missing lunches or being late, and stuff like that.
Chris Grace: Man, it's such a great area, Tim. It's really helpful for I think listeners to understand something about this bias that we have. This bias is self-serving. It's a bias that we have in general about attributions. Why does somebody do what they do? If somebody does some event, or we see somebody in a certain way, we have to make a decision. Is this about that person, their attribution, that is their personality? Or, is this more dependent upon do we blame the situation? Do we say, "Somebody must have provoked him. Somebody must have said something mean to Tim earlier today. Somebody must have, this isn't normal for him."
It's that process of explaining and inferring the cause of events, and we tend to have a bias. We tend to over-emphasize the actors, the cause of events, which is why the benefit of the doubt is so important. When I see my friend act in a certain way that is unlike them, I need to be able and usually will say, "I wonder what's going on? I wonder what outside events happened?" Versus maybe somebody don't know. I might think more likely, gosh, they are really hot headed. They're mean tempered. They're whatever, unkind.
Tim Muehlhoff: Isn't another word for this the fundamental attribution error?
Chris Grace: That's exactly what it is.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, we called that. Another sign of a healthy relationship, friendship, going back to how we started the podcast is when I do look at those situations where you're acting out of character, okay, that surprised me. You missed lunch. That doesn't usually happen, is do I give you the benefit of the doubt? Do I believe the best about you? Am I just stewing on that? Yeah. We all need to recognize that we have these biases, and self-deception is everywhere. I literally don't know how I'm coming across, and I really need my friends to help me. There's a proverb. Proverb 24 26. I love this, "An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips." It's a Persian custom where friends would literally greet each other with a kiss on the lips. Let me illustrate, Chris. Okay. That's an interesting,
Chris Grace: Chris just left the room.
Tim Muehlhoff: An honest answer is like that. Right? I need a friend to say, "Hey Tim, do you realize that when you don't follow through on your end of the deal, that you always have an excuse? That it's never you. It's always this, this, other people?" Boy, that's hard to hear, but that's like a kiss on the lips.
Chris Grace: Yeah, it really is. It's important to then therefore be in a relationship or surround yourself with friends who are able to do that. It is so important. I think just as that I did, Tim, you mentioned this as fundamental attribution error. It's so fundamental because we find it occurs. Everyone does it. That's why they call it fundamental, and then the error that we make in attributions. I remember one time in a game I was playing in, a football game, intramurals. I made a number of catches, and it was snowy out one time, and this, I went back to the huddle because the quarterback kept throwing to the other receiver, and he kept dropping it. I actually said these words, "Stop throwing him the ball. He's a bad receiver."
Okay, now that is a tendency to say this person, he's a bad receiver, even though he wasn't. The next thing happens is the quarterback does throw me this ball. It is not toward the end of the game. In fact, if I catch this, the odds are we're going to win this game. It was snowing. The lights were on. It was almost like a blizzard. This ball. I'm wide open, and here comes the pass to me, and I just complained to the quarterback, "Stop throwing it to the receiver. He's not a good receiver. He's going to drop it. Throw me the ball." He does, and it comes, and I drop it.
Chris Grace: The lights, the snow were in my eyes. All these things, so I came back to the huddle. Do you think I said, "I'm a bad receiver." "The lights were in my eyes. You didn't even throw a spiral. The snow was hitting me." I was lovely. Right? My own outcome or the things that happen to me are because of external things. Right? External situational events. The lights. His, when it happens to him, it's because of internal causes. I think that's the bias we have. We have to really understand and recognize we do that.
Tim Muehlhoff: I have a friend who's a psychologist, and he says, "In sessions with couples, I never let a person say, 'I'm sorry' just by itself." He said, "Who knows what that 'I'm sorry' is." I'm sorry you don't have a sense of humor. I'm sorry you're so wound up. I'm sorry you, he said, "It always has to be, 'I'm sorry. It was wrong for this." Boy, that's a good exercise with friends. There are times you just blow it. It's you. I could try to think of an out, and think of externals I could blame it on. Man, there's something really healthy about a friendship when a person, another friend just says, "Man, I blew it. I'm sorry. I should have been there. I wasn't. I blew it." Yeah.
Chris Grace: That's good. Well, Tim, this has been just a valuable kind of topic. I think we need to keep talking. There is a number of questions that people send in on friendships. Let's keep doing that. Let's answer some even more, but as of right now, let's take a break and come back again talk about this.
Tim Muehlhoff: We'll put it up again. This is a great topic.
Chris Grace: Well, come to the cmr.biola.edu if you want more material we have out there. We have not only blogs, we have videos. We have some great material for you. Go check us out on that, and then we look forward to visiting with you again.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right. I have a new column, Hair Tips: How to Make your Cranium Shine. Just check it out. It's new for the CMR.
Chris Grace: That is going to be an amazing best seller, I can tell you that.
Tim Muehlhoff: It's pretty short. It's a quick read.
Chris Grace: Well, take care and good visiting with you.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.