I immediately felt the chill on my chest. My bare feet felt the damp concrete. The door shut behind me.
Make it quick. I started towards the door at the other end of the walk.
That’s when I heard the long whistle.
“Looking good Jake!!”
For some reason that evening, Chelsea needed me to empty the garbage. I was ready for bed and all I had on were my shorts. I’m a nice guy. Our best friends, who rented a house kitty-corner from us, indeed, were taking an evening walk when I came out. My response to them was truth, “I told Chelsea this would happen.” They got a kick out of it. So did Chelsea.
Really great friends, like ours, don’t come along often. Finding really good friends as individuals is hard. Finding really good friends as a couple, where the individuals get along with the individuals of the other couple, is a much harder problem. Keeping this relationship really close over a lifetime — wow.
So really, if Social Dynamics explains everything from love to creativity, then it should offer some insights on what takes friendship to the next level and how we keep it together over a lifetime.
The Solution of Friendships
Much like the social dynamics of love, friendship is both a structure (value) problem and a connection (empathy) problem. The Gibbs energy argument for phase change leading to friendship is practically identical. Just because you work with someone and value similar things, like going to boat races, doesn’t mean you’ll hit it off as friends. While similar values are a good start, it remains to be seen whether you can connect to understand each other’s sarcasm and other nuances. The converse is also true — you may really be able to connect with someone but have fundamental, and even insurmountable, core value disagreements.
In thermodynamics, a fluid mixture is described as “miscible” if they form a homogenous solution and phase change doesn’t cause them to come into or out of solution. This only happens if a couple of criteria are met: 1) similar phase envelopes, and 2) high entropy of mixing. What this basically means is that for two fluids to stay together, they have to change phase in similar regions of temperature, pressure, and density, while generating a considerable entropy (# of ways) they can interact when mixing. With this amount of complexity, some fluids never mix (oil and water) and are called immiscible, some fluids that are not strongly attracted can still be mixed with the correct conditions (CO2 and water), and some fluids always mix well (ethanol and water). Parallels with friendship naturally emerge.
Chelsea and I got married right before we moved across the country for graduate school. We were so lucky that the families of two of my three best men from our wedding were moving too and would only be a few hours drive away. One of the first nights after moving was spent on our friend’s porch, watching a real Midwest thunderstorm. We spent many holidays and weekends with our friends — which helps build empathy and align values. Sadly, a few years later, we moved again. We really had no idea when we’d see them next. Seven years later I got a call that they were in the area. We picked up right where we left off, just like ethanol and water — which were present at the meeting.
One of my closest friends recently moved away to a neighboring city, along with a raise and additional stress on the job. While the large spatial change didn’t disrupt things too much for our friends in Wisconsin, in this case it mattered. While still good friends, we’re not on the same page as much as we used to be. Much like CO2 and water, a change in conditions allows us to start fizzling out of solution.
We’ve also had those friends where no matter what I or we did, or what we had in common, for some reason we just could never really get started. It’s tough to really no why. Oil and water.
Then, there have been cases, only a couple, where things went bad, fast.
In 5th through 8th grades I was selected by my teachers to participate in an experimental peer-conflict mediation program that had just started in my school district. The premise was simple — teach students how to resolve conflicts among their peers and you’ll have less conflict. But the program went beyond that — trained student ‘mediators’ would facilitate conflict mediation sessions in a structured environment sometimes in the playground or in controlled rooms, even after fists led to blows. A quick aside — this program may have had the biggest influence on me of any in my lifetime.
Looking back on the program now, I only remember fragments of the conflict mediation process, but those I remember are all about empathy:
- Start by agreeing to come to a solution and respecting the confidentiality of the discussion.
- Have each party tell their view of the story. Stick to the evidence of the situation and how it made them feel. Help them label the emotions. Don’t allow projection — saying someone else did something, or the word “you did”. All you can know is what your senses observed.
- Repeat the story you heard, labeling emotions, and working to find commonalities between the stories and parties. (Party 1) it seems like you are (insert emotion), (Party 2) are you also (insert emotion). Also try to identify problems and opportunities.
- Empower the parties to develop a solution to the conflict.
- Record and repeat to ensure understanding. Have the parties shake or hug to close.
Many of these same techniques are applied by former FBI International Crises Negotiator Chris Voss in his recent book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating like your Life Depends on it”. You can see the empathy scaffolding layers of 1. mirroring, 2. emotional, 3. rational, 4. cognitive. The conclusion: we’re less likely to conflict, or come out of solution, when we’re empathic to each other.
Over the years I saw a number of interesting behaviors in these meetings related directly to cutoff empathy. Stonewalling — refusing to make eye contact or converse with another. Sociopathy — trying to disrupt the relationships of others. Gaslighting — intentional manipulation of someone else’s recounting of events. Here’s an article reviewing 7 stages of gaslighting. Most of these behaviors directly correlate to an empathy level. When you see them, things get difficult fast. On rare occasion I had to bring in one of the professional advisers as, sometimes, you draw a high conflict person with lots of experience.
I should note that although stunningly effective in person, I have not had much success with these techniques in social media environments. Probably because of the low empathy communication channels.
In the end, conflicts are relatively short-timescale events and society is relatively effective at handling these now. It’s the longer time-scale conflicts where we need work.
“It starts with a single individual—always a child—and then spreads explosively, like the formation of crystals round the first nucleus in a saturated solution. Adults will not be affected, for their minds are already set in an unalterable mould.” — from Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
The quote above by Arthur C. Clarke in his masterpiece “Childhood’s End” comes when the parents realize the children are now interconnected, and not coming back. If their was a literary analogy to global empathy enabled by future social media, this is it.
I’ve noticed a strange connection to those I played with as a child. Sometimes even decades apart, having shared the childhood experience together matters. If you want to resolve conflict between cultures, mix the children, provide a support structure, well before the calcified and incompatible values of adults are imposed. My friend Chuck Pezeshki once said something beautiful when I cornered him about optimism for the future. He said, “I’ve always had an incredible faith in the neuroplasticity of children to synthesize evidence from reality.” Mix the children and your problems won’t last more than a couple generations — just long enough for those children to share power to change together.
When we do build in empathy in core programming we realize we’re not all that different. It’s widely known that no evolved democracy as ever attacked and started war on another. We can keep it together. When we do, a lot more ways to life are at our disposal. That’s an end to Childhood we can all hope for.
“I understand.” Said the last man. –Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.
(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/dr-jacob-leachman/ )