The recent study by Relate reveals that one in ten people in the UK do not have a close friend and 19% have not felt loved or cared for in the previous two weeks. This was not news to me. Over the years, many of my coaching clients have described exactly the same thing. The reasons vary but they include the deaths of old friends, divorce, children leaving home, the death of a spouse, moving to a different part of the country and having to make friends all over again in a new organization.
Many of these clients will say that they have lost the art of making friends. Once it was easy. You got close to people because you grew up together, because you shared the same corridor at a Hall of Residence, because you were all young parents together, or because you were one half of a couple who did absolutely everything together including finishing each other’s sentences.
This was in my mind as I listened to a coaching client, an actuary by training. With merger on the cards, it was clear that his job was at risk. As he asked himself the question, Should I leave my firm, he said,
‘I can feel myself quaking inside just at the thought!’
This client was honest in naming his fear. This was twofold. First he feared that his skills were unique to his organisation and therefore not transferable. Secondly, he realised that the organisation had become not only his place of work but also the focus of his social network: the summer barbies, the conferences and the evening entertaining were all with colleagues or clients. He said he even enjoyed internal meetings, however pointless and badly-run they turned out to be, because there he got recognition and a kind of simulated friendship.
Many large organizations can provide the same kind of ersatz companionship. I am no longer surprised by how small and gossipy they can seem with so many overlapping layers of contacts and professional connections. It is easy to forget that friendships made at work are like the status you get from your role: fragile flowers that mostly crumple swiftly after you leave.
This client decided he had lost sight of what real friendship was. He said he had forgotten how to make new friends and had no clue about where to find them. The very idea that skilled effort was needed and that some of this might result in rebuffs and disappointments was intensely alarming. A good chunk of our coaching was therefore usefully devoted to how to find, cultivate, nourish and cherish a new friend.
My client left his job, and a generous package is enabling him to think through his options, but in the meantime he has set himself the task of finding three new friends a year – the number gradually increasing to take account of age-related attrition. He has invented an algorithm to do this – your age divided by five for each half-decade of your life, the result squared then divided by… but my eyes glazed over at this point. As he reminded me triumphantly, actuaries are people who find accountancy too exciting.