Navigating the Art of Friendships, pt. 1

Chris Grace, Tim Muehlhoff - September 26, 2017

Research has shown that friendships are truly life-giving, and are directly tied to our quality of life. Today, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff discuss how to cultivate, nurture, and navigate friendships in the age of technology, and how friendships affect our self-perception. 


Chris Grace:    Welcome again to The Art Of Relationships podcast with Tim Muehlhoff.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And Dr. Chris Grace. 

Chris Grace:     We are excited to be able to join you guys again with just another topic. We're gonna talk about all things relationships. We're here at Biola University, at the Center for Marriage and Relationships, where you can find all kinds of cool things, blogs and podcasts and videos and things like that, and Tim one of the topics that we feel passionate about that we have learned and spoken on but also it is just an important topic for anyone, and that is the topic of friendships. How we go about navigating those, processing them, becoming more involved in the lives of somebody does some amazing things. when we become friends and when we navigate that. So lets talk about it. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:     It's probably one of our most requested topics, because that affects married couples, it affects singles, it affects everybody, and you know all these studies that are out there about quality of life, is really tied to the quality of our relationships and the danger of isolationism has devastating impact on us psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. So friendships really help us get past any situation.

It's so funny, Eastern Michigan University, where I graduated from, was not the top pillar place, but I had good friends, and good friends make any situation bearable. Because you can just laugh together, you can talk about misery together, so friendships are huge, everybody wants them, but people do struggle with how to go deeper in your friendships, how to cultivate them and foster them and nurture them.

Chris Grace:     It's not only the most requested, we get a lot of questions about friendships, navigating them and difficulties. Probably Tim, let's spend some time then over the next podcast or two just kinda going over some different things that have come up and what we've learned from your area of communication and then my area of psychology. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:    We've been collecting these questions all along and now we have a bunch of them and we thought we'd just take a podcast or two and tackle some of the top questions when it comes to friendship.

Chris, why don't you start us off with the very first one?

Chris Grace:     Yeah, basically this person writes and asks, "How does modern technology, particularly social media, influence the development and maintenance of friendships today?" So, Tim, we've done this before as far as talking about some impact of social media and technology, but it is clearly beginning to shape and define this area of friendships, of all relationships, it has a huge impact. So what do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:     Yeah I think it's impacted in both good and bad ways. We used to talk about friendships, we had two broad categories. Friends of the road and friends of the heart. It used to be that friends of the road just kind of suffered a little bit, we were friends because we're in the same geographic location but when you move, the friendship just really suffers. Now with social media, you really can overcome the distance between us. For example, Noreen's really good friend is her sister, and so we just had a graduation with one of our kids, she was there. Not physically but we brought her in, we FaceTimed her and she's there with all of her daughters, and we're just laughing and the kids are talking to each other. It was almost as if she was just right there, and I think that's the beauty of social media, is that man distance is not an option anymore and you really can overcome that. And so we just feel like it was a great situation.

I have a friend in Canada, we have been separated from each other for about, I want to say 20 years, we haven't physically been in the same place and now we're not even the same country. I feel like our friendship has grown deeper through phone calls, text messages, we Facebook each other, we send each other goofy pictures all the time. So I do think the positive thing about social media is distance really isn't a factor anymore.

Chris Grace:     Yeah connection, intimacy, keeping up with each other, ready access, you can just simply call somebody in the past, today now, the ability to message or text or really just contact somebody is pretty, and everybody usually has a phone with them now, so it can be such a blessing. And then of course that comes with some hidden costs doesn't it, and then some surprises that we're finding when it comes to the way we process things in the brain. Let's talk about that.

Tim Muehlhoff:     I would say the biggest negative one is that every friendship will have disagreements. I would question a friendship that never had a disagreement. I think it's through those disagreements that you can really grow. But like if you and I had a disagreement, we're taking cues off each other right away, I mean we're sitting there and I'm not raising my voice because you're sitting right there, and I'm not being snarky and so we can pull it back a little bit. But lets say that I send you a snarky email, and I'm just mad, right? And I'll do it in real time, or a text. Man I bold a couple things, I put a couple things in all caps, we call that disinhibition, because we're not face to face, I can just let my emotions have full reign, I can say things that I just wouldn't say in public, in front of you. So I think disinhibition is a big one that I think kind of can creep into social mediated disagreements and arguments.

Chris Grace:      It's also given rise to ways in which we try and mediate the words we use or the tone, emoticons, lets say I'm happy, I'm sorry, I'm sad, I'm angry, I'm doing this, to kind of give us the non-verbal that we're missing and lacking sometimes, right, that we read. And so we can send over a "haha" or whatever it is that tells us okay hold on here I'm just kind of not as angry as I think and we're trying to create the non-verbal channel that we've lost in face to face.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Have you ever, I've done this a couple times, where I'm having a conversation with a person via texting or emails, and it's sorta kinda going south. Like I'm negatively interpreting a couple things, like well what did you mean by that? That didn't seem right. And there's just been a couple times where I've said "Forget this, I'm calling them." And I'll call them and say, "Hey, just a quick clarification on," and they're like "Oh dude, I was kidding, I was totally kidding." It's like "Oh, okay. I thought you were."

So that's what I think the danger is of social media, is an email, I mean we've all received emails where you just sat and stewed on this email, and I think texting is a little bit better because it's immediate, you can get there pretty quickly to say "Hey can you clarify?" And things like that, Twitter, I think it affords all that kind of stuff. So I think what we're trying to say is perception checking needs to happen in social media just as much as it happens in face to face interactions.

Chris Grace:    I think Tim, another issue that I worry about when it comes to some social media stuff, is less about the vehicle itself, the texting, the imessaging, whatever it is, I think those can be navigated and we do them pretty well today. Young people today have just the ability to navigate this world and connect with each other and talk and they have their own rules and they figure out things and it creates a great place for friendship.

I think the other negative that I worry about with social media, with technology, when it comes to friendships, is the allure of the update, the allure of the ding, the allure and the pull from my attention when I'm talking to someone face-to-face, and then all of a sudden what happens is I'm fearing, the fear of missing out, there's actually a joy that we get when someone sends a message to us that's not in the room, and that begins to take over now and I'm constantly being distracted. And I think what happens is we lose our ability to be present in the moment with some people, and that giving of our attention is such a powerful thing, but it also can also tell the other person that I'm more interested in this message right now, I'm more interested in this text than I am in you, and that can damage a friendship if there is concern about that.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Yeah. Well, what do we need to do about it? That's the thing.

Chris Grace:    I think you figure out, like right now as you and I are talking, and I've noticed we've both done this, that phone stays put aside, it's put there. There's a special ring. I have a friend who will never answer his phone when I'm sitting there talking with him, unless it rings twice with his wife's special ringtone, then he knows "okay, the first time she rings I don't answer it, the second time is okay I need to answer this because we have a little rule that says I will not call you twice unless it's important."

So those kinds of things, I think establishing ahead of time that you will not be distracted by, or you will put aside, and you will give somebody the gift of your attention, the gift of your presence.

Tim Muehlhoff:    See and I think this is one of the benefits of biblical fasting. Fasting is routed in this idea of I'm gonna give up one thing so I can focus on another thing. Now traditionally in biblical fasting I give up a food or drink so I can focus on prayer, but that same principle can be used in a lot of different ways, for example, I can say this weekend I'm not gonna look at my technology, I'm gonna fast from it, and maybe a weekend's too much, but to take a day or even a half a day.

You know I've had my students try to do this Chris. I've actually assigned this and I joined them, which was just a colossal mistake. It is really hard, and the first time I assigned it, my students came back and they had flunked it massively. All I asked them to do is to take three days. The first day they were allowed one hour of social media totally, that's it. Second day they were allowed a half hour, and then the third day they had no social media whatsoever. And Chris, when we came back, everybody, I think it was 100% reported, "I couldn't do it. And it bothered me that I couldn't do it." So then we did it in another week and people did much much better. But I think that's what denying ourselves this instant gratification of social media, which Noreen have noticed so often.

Just the other day, all my boys are home except one of them is here at Biola, were all watching TV and all of us had our laptops out and one of my kids had a phone out, and yet we're all watching TV. See watching TV is boring now. That's what scares me Chris is just watching TV is boring, you need something else and man that scares me.

Chris Grace:      It does, you know I'm reminded of this survey that was done, a research study by popular mechanics and they asked, they did this, what are the gadgets that changed the world? And they listed number ten was the light bulb, number seven was the telephone, number five was the personal computer. TV was number three. And the number one gadget was the phone, the cell phone. And so smartphones, you know, they have all these amazing numbers, but what it can do today and the way in which we can use it to stay connected to people, it's amazing, but it has done and has changed the way we connect and relate with each other.

Tim Muehlhoff:      I came across a New York Times writer who did a really interesting thing, you know how we have Facebook friends. Well, I think he said he had 830 Facebook friends, but in the Greater New York area he actually had 230 of those Facebook friends were right there. So here's what he did Chris, this was fascinating, he rented a section of a restaurant, and invited all of his local Facebook friends to come. So that was like roughly 220-230 something like that, guess how many came?

Chris Grace:     I don't know.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Two.

So here's what he said. I call them Facebook friends, but are they really friends? And again I could get that some people just couldn't make it but two out of 230. 

So let's be careful, and again, I'm not one of those people that disparages social media friends, I think we can have deep friendships, I think our friendships can grow, I think the same criteria we use to judge face-to-face friendships can also be used to judge social media friends, and I think you can actually foster really good friends.

Chris Grace:      Yeah, you know, some of the research out there like that New York Times article and the Popular Mechanics, there's another one in Time magazine, and the mobile technology company Qualcomm, they did a survey of 5,000 smartphone users in eight countries and they asked them how does it change their life? And you know what the most common response was? They said, it brought them in closer contact with their friends and family and helped them be better informed. And so they said, almost 75% of the respondents in every country, these were in eight different countries, agree that this constant connection was mostly positive. And so that's the good news, right?

Now, the bad news was the obsessive need they found to remain connected was growing so strong that most people, 60% of users, don't even go more than an hour without checking their phone. And then more than half said they check their phones while in bed before going to sleep, upon waking and even during the night, and if you look at only 18 to 34-year-olds, they're doing that, up to 74% said they're doing this constantly, first thing.

So that idea, you know, what's interesting about connecting that way, it sometimes leads us to disconnect from those we're in connection with physically, because we're so distracted by it, and so those are the things that we worry about when it comes to friendship.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Yeah that's really good. Hey, let's go onto our second question. This is a really thoughtful question. What is self-awareness and why is self-awareness important in communicating with others?

Chris Grace:       That's a great question. Self-awareness is a huge issue, and in comm, we distinguish between two different things, self-perception, and self-esteem. So self-perception would be, if listeners have ever seen a picture of me, I do not have hair. That is self-perception. Self-esteem is, how do you feel about that? And I feel good baby. I mean how do you feel about that? I feel good about that, I could equally feel bad about that, but so self-perception is things like your height, this is my social economic status, this is my job, my friends. But self-esteem is how do you feel about all these facts? So you're single lets say, well that could be a negative thing, a positive thing, and your friends are going to by and large help you determine if it's good or bad. So your friends have a huge say in your self esteem .

Tim Muehlhoff:     You know I was a high school wrestler Chris, I like to think of this metaphor when I think of friendship. I was a high school wrestler, and high school wrestling is just the study in fear. It's just fear. You walk out there, remember those guys in high school Chris, who looked like they were 35. Remember those guys? It's like dude you're 35 why are you in high school? I had to wrestle those guys. But I remember my coach, you know between rounds in wrestling, he'd always be in my ear. And he'd say "Muehlhoff you can do this. Muehlhoff you're better than this guy. Get out of here, go out there and pin this guy." Your friends are like that, they're always whispering in your ear, and it can either be positive or negative, so friends really do establish your level of self-awareness and your level of self esteem, so pick your friends very carefully.

Chris Grace:        That's a great point, you know in psychology we talk about this, people often say that they're friends with somebody, and you ask them "Why are you friends with this person?" And they have this kind of, it's a pretty simple theory of liking, it says this, well the common assumption is we're friends with somebody and we're attracted to them because they have special qualities like they're witty, or they're wise, or they're kind.

Tim Muehlhoff:      Thank you.

Chris Grace:     But they have a tattooed head.

But the second most interesting, I think, kind of finding has been, in the area of friendships in psychology, is it's not so much this assumption that we're attracted to people and we're friends with them because of the special qualities they have. Instead, a more accurate answer is it's because of how I feel when I'm with this person. We call this the reward theory of attraction, right? I like this person because I feel this way with them. We like those who reward us, they pay attention to us, and so,

Tim Muehlhoff:      They laugh at our jokes.

Chris Grace:       They laugh at our jokes, and their voice, what we hear them speaking to us, and we associate them with good feelings, right? So those two ideas, that we like people that we associate with good feelings, we like people who reward us and pay attention to us, and therefore that tells you how important that voice is, that self-awareness but that talk of this person says nice things or pays attention to me. And again that's a fascinating study and finding of course when it comes to friendships.

Tim Muehlhoff:       Yeah that's huge, the rewards that you get. But going back to this person's question, the beginning part of it, why is self-awareness so important? Interesting question that we wrestle with in comm, on our comm side of things. So lets say you have a certain level of self-esteem, what would it take for a friend or another person to actually change your self esteem, how you feel about yourself? Well we have three different criteria, by which I would allow another person to change my impression that I have of myself? We call this by the way cognitive conservatism, which means once my self esteem is set, it's really hard to change. So here are three criteria that we use whether we're gonna allow a person's opinion to shape us.

Question number one. Do we find this person to be competent? So this is interesting, so you're talking to a friend and that friend wants to encourage, since we're both professors, wants to encourage our teaching. And says, "Oh you're the greatest, you're an awesome teacher." And I look at that friend and I say "Hey thank you so much for saying that," but you're not a teacher. You're not a professor. So I don't know if that's gonna change how I view myself being a professor. I think if you were to say something about my teaching Chris it would be different because I view you as being competent. So it is interesting that some of our friends, our compliments are like water off the back of a duck, it doesn't seem to make any difference whatsoever to this person.

The second question is, is the message general or is it specific in nature? So in other words, a student could say, in one of my classes, "Oh Biola professors are just the best." That won't necessarily change my self-esteem because it was too general. If that professor said, "Dr. Muehlhoff, when you teach I hear the voice of Jesus." Alright? That makes a difference because it was specific.

Then the last one, I think this is fascinating. Is it reasonable? So if you came up to me Chris and said, "You're the best teacher I have ever heard in my life." My first reaction would be, "Chris, you need to get out more. You just need to get out more." But I think, you know what I mean? It's like Chris, I could receive from you that you think I'm a good teacher, but to think, I'm thinking here at Biola. Right?

So isn't that fascinating that these three questions, we judge whether a friends input is really gonna stick or not.

Chris Grace:      Yeah, and I think what happens is it gives us this sense of we can either dismiss it and we probably do this pretty quickly based upon, Tim, who that person is and with these criteria. And I think we also take into account a number of things when it comes to this, so we think about the way in which a person has impactful, is important to us, and we want them to speak in and we look up to them, so there's respect, and so some people when they speak have a much higher impact on you. Very different.

Tim Muehlhoff:      This brings up a weird issue with our spouses, let's tackle this for a quick question. Because of course, we want to be friends with our spouses.

So your spouse, though you know they love you, your spouse loves you, you know your spouse is absolutely committed to you, but it might be this really weird situation where you're spouse doesn't actually encourage you. Right? Because you can imagine a scenario where one spouse says to another "Oh honey I just think you're the greatest." Right? And that person says, "Yeah well unfortunately my boss doesn't think that. Other friends don't think that. I mean of course you think I'm the greatest, you're my spouse." But that's interesting that you just discounted your spouse's opinion, because why Chris? Because you just assume you have to say that because you're my spouse.

Chris Grace:     Yeah and it's really unfortunate because I think what it means is that we need to almost have an agreement. So in my marriage, what we will say is we will always speak the truth and love, we will share these kinds of things, and ask for each of us to be as objective as possible when we're talking about something that's very impactful, like how did that go, how'd this conversation go?

Tim Muehlhoff:     Do you believe her though?

Chris Grace:      Well I ask her I say, "Lis, we have to really trust each other. I know you're going to be biased towards me." And so I can read the more subtle changes, but you're right. It can become almost like a,

Tim Muehlhoff:     A darned if you do, darned if you don't, if you're that spouse. You know I have a good friend of mine, his name's Tim and he's a gifted writer, he's won multiple awards. He won Christianity Today's book of the year award in evangelism, his name's Tim Downs. So I've given him my writing, okay, to look at, and he will say to me, "Okay what do you want from me right now?" I said, "I want unabashed praise." And he would say, "It's great, best thing I've ever written, it's just awesome." "Okay, thank you. Now what do you really think?" And he'll say to me, "Okay listen, it's good, I didn't get this part and I thought this part could be stronger." So I really do receive what he has to say. And think of the criteria we just did, competent, absolutely he's competent, he's won awards. Second, he's speaking to me not just speaking in generality. And then last, I think he is reasonable with me, he's not gonna say, "Tim, the Pulitzer is on it's way."

So interesting that certain, so we probably have different categories of friends, right? That we look to for comments.

Chris Grace:      I think we do, I think we have different categories. I also think that some of the passages that I think about when it comes to friendships, you know, the idea of walk with the wise and become wise for a companion of fools suffers harm, says the proverb. But the idea too about listening to advice, but one who has an unreliable, or who has unreliable friends, as soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. And I love the idea of the way in which we can find hope. You know the whole story of Job as well, you know when his friends set out they said when they heard about all the troubles that had come up on him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. And you know they didn't speak, I believe they sat there for three days without speaking, just sitting there with a person.

So I think in terms of quality of friendships and who's impactful and what it means, we oftentimes find those that are deep soul mates, those that we know can speak into our lives, and sometimes those become so critical for us to understand and navigate things, they see things and they know our hearts, they know who we are.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Man what a valued commodity, to have one or two or three people that you know are on your side, but will tell you exactly, and obviously you have to couch it, nobody can handle raw truth, but to have those people that'll step in and say "Hey here's what I do think about this." And that's valuable.

Chris Grace:       And I love what John said in 15, he talked about Jesus was talking about his command, he said, "Love each other as I have loved you." Right? Greater love is no man than this, then he laid down his life for his friends. Then he says, "You are my friends, if you do what I command." I no longer call you servants, instead, I call you friends, for everything that I have learned my father I have made known to you.

Now there's something to talk about, what does that mean? What does that mean?

Tim Muehlhoff:    And you know we could take the three criteria as we wrap this up, we could apply it right to God. Right? We could say is he competent? And don't be so quick to answer yes on that, right? I mean some of us feel like god's given up a little bit of his credibility because our child did get sick, we did lose our job, so don't be so quick just to say yeah, of course, God's competent he's speaking to my life. No, I mean be honest with God. I love what Lewis said, "Pray not what's supposed to be in you, pray what's in you."

The second one is, and I think this is, Chris, where Christian's really struggle, remember it's the is it specific or general? So I think a lot of people would say, "Yeah, well God loves everybody. He loves all humans, he loves all Christians, he even loves all Christians equally." But this is where I think it's important to apply the scriptures to yourself individually and to say you know what, Jesus died for me. God loves me as a specific individual.

And then the last one is, is it reasonable? Boy, that's an interesting one. Is it reasonable to think that I was worth of Christ's death? That he loved me that much. So I think it'd be easy to say "Well, of course, God should have massive impact on your self-esteem." But I think for a lot of Christians that may not be true. Their self-esteem isn't radically changed by how God feels and that's a hard issue they're gonna need to wrestle with.

Well, Chris, this is a great topic man, we could continue, we just scratched the surface. I think we've covered two or three questions readers have sent, I think we'll continue doing this.

Chris Grace:      Yeah let's do it.

Thanks for joining us today again and Tim thanks for these great insights that you have. I think this is a topic that has such great impact and such relevance so it's fun to talk about with you.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Would you say they're the best insights on friendship you've ever heard?

Chris Grace:     I've never heard anything more insightful than what you have said today.

Tim Muehlhoff:      Thank you. That really means a lot.

Chris Grace:      If you want to hear even more insightful conversations, join us at our next podcast. Thanks for coming and joining us, The Art of Relationships, go to cmr.biola.edu for more information and background and just different things we have on there. So it's great to talk with you. Take care.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Bye y'all. 


Chris Grace

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

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.


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