From schoolwork to job hunts to intramural sports, college students are propelled by the motor of competition. With the astonishing number of things that people compete over here, it may be surprising to learn that there are certain things that elicit no competition—like strong friendship. While people sometimes take pride in the quantity of their friends, few compete over the quality of those friendships. Rarer still do people strive to improve their relationship skills to deepen their friendships and romantic life.
One notable exception is a friend of mine (let’s call him Joe). His freshman year, Joe began his first romantic relationship. Thinking that he could apply his argumentative skills from high school debate to his partner’s problems, he gave her analytically rigorous advice, similar to what we are all probably used to hearing from our friends: “You are worried about that test? Here are 17 reasons you shouldn’t be worried about that test.” But she, unsurprisingly, already knew these rational solutions, and hearing them from Joe only made her feel worse.
Trying to figure out what he was doing wrong, Joe sought advice from others. Many of his friends were frank with him, saying that he was too overbearing, both to his partner, and similarly, to them. Motivated to change, Joe became a peer counselor. He soon learned that his problem-solving tactics were often a poor way to make someone feel better about their concerns, and that a non-confrontational approach, compassionate listening, and active empathy could be more successful strategies. Equally quickly, Joe realized that many of the other peer counselors in his cohort had already been expert relationship coaches before their training: While Joe had to learn how to “do” peer counseling, many of his peers had been practicing active listening and other positive relationship skills for years. Inspired by these lifelong peer counselors, Joe committed to transforming himself to be like them. Today, he believes he has improved at managing his relationships, which he credits with helping him cultivate a level of intimacy in his friendships and his next romantic relationship that otherwise would not have been possible.
More generally, people who want to rapidly improve at a given skill will attempt to surround themselves with people that possess that skill. At Harvard, I have heard people justify taking hard classes or joining certain laboratories for this reason. But Joe is the first person I have met who has applied this logic to relationships. Not surprisingly, the effects seem to be the same; just as with building academic or athletic skills, relationship skills require learning from those that are more knowledgeable.
Why are few of Joe’s classmates like him, pushing themselves to improve their emotional intelligence to be a better friend and partner to those around them? Why are Harvard students, usually ready to pounce at any opportunity to compete, so blind to hone their friendship skills? I would venture a guess that most students have not even considered building strong relationships an admirable goal worth striving toward. When most students think of social skills, they think of witty repartee at a party, or an impossibly good memory of the names of people they met in their freshman Expository Writing class. While wit is prized, the gritty consistency of a friend that always has your back is often met with blithe acceptance.
Many people simply assume that some people are “naturally” warm and kind, and rarely praise this friendliness as a genuine achievement. While some of us may be undeniably predisposed to it, this neglects the fact that some people have been successfully nurturing these skills for years. By unquestioningly accepting that some are naturally emotionally available and others are born aloof, we hide from our capacity to learn emotional intelligence, just like we can learn most things. Like Joe, if we care enough to improve our relationship skills, we might be surprised to find a new depth in our relationships with people, leading to a surprisingly profound amount of intimacy.
Who am I to tell Harvard students to compete in yet one more thing? It is not so much that I think we should be hollowly showing off our friendship chops to those around us, but rather that we should be critically reflecting upon them. And if we find our skills to be lacking, then we should not chalk this up to some sort of character fluke, but rather consider learning how to improve. In sum, we should feel a sense of ownership over the quality with which we relate to others. We should honor those who make the extra effort to care for a friend, and respect those who have mastered compassion and the art of listening.
A whole college actively working to be better friends to one another, bolstered by a spirit of “friendly” competition, could rapidly transform Harvard’s social life from a stage for quick-witted performers to impress their audience to a genuine community of support and compassion. While competition in other areas of the Harvard experience may be a necessary evil, “friendly” competition is an overlooked panacea.
Reed T. Shafer-Ray ’18 is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy House. Their column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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