Practical Friendship

How to get by (better) with a little help from our friends

One of the articles in Friends & Lovers (IC#10)
Originally published in Summer 1985 on page 15
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

John Hoff is a therapist, theologian and community consultant in Seattle. His work is based on the idea that we can create a fine world to live in if we each 1) choose to become the best possible version of our own unique self, 2) discover our connectedness to each other and the rest of Nature, and 3) join with others in community to support and encourage each other’s personal growth and a societal transformation. This article offers a practical application of these ideas.

A friend is one
To whom one may pour
Out all the contents
Of one’s heart,
Chaff and grain together,
Knowing that the
Gentlest of hands
Will take and sift it,
Keep what is worth keeping
And with a breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

(Arabian proverb)

THE CONDITIONS OF MODERN SOCIETY are hard on relationships. Our lives have become complex and stressful, making it difficult to nurture the spiritual connection between and among us that is called relationship. We are so preoccupied with seeing individuals as separate entities and assessing each other’s different-ness that there is little sense of that which binds us, what we share in the context of relationship. Relationship is the most important context for our lives; it is the place where we really live, where we learn and grow. It is important to value our relationships and design them to be good environments for mutual growth. Yet so often our relationships are cold, tense, conflict-ridden, unfriendly environments. A simple way to say this is that the sense of friendship has been lost from our relationships.

Plato said, "Friendship is, strictly speaking, reciprocal benevolence, which inclines each party to be as solicitous for the welfare of the other as for his own." I would add to this that friendship is a strategy for personal growth; it involves a commitment to endure with each other and to make our lives and the world better through keeping each other healthily human and effectively loving. Relationships are our most precious resource. Knowing that, how do we value and utilize the resource of our relationships?

In this article I’d like to talk about practical friendship – and explore how we can put that sense of friendship back into our lives.


The Goodenough Community (8602 Renton Ave. So., Seattle, WA 98118), of which I am a part, is blessed with a large number of people who have experimented in their own lives to develop a body of knowledge about practical friendships. This non-residential community is a group of several hundred individuals, living in the Puget Sound area, who are interested in how community can be an agent for societal change and a resource for living. The group is not defined by place or activity but by covenant, the core of which is the commitment to be the finest person possible at both the level of character and integrity, and to compassionately work with others to express that integrity in appropriate ways. The community formed, almost as a byproduct, around the interactions of a variety of professional people engaged in putting on an annual Human Relations Laboratory – a human relations training event. People connected with these events began to network – and found many ways to work, play and learn together.

Much of the underlying work of the community has to do with learning about relationships, interpersonal skills and becoming a better friend. In our search for individual excellence, we are also concerned to find the practical ways of utilizing the valuable resource of our friends.

A Council of Friends Some uses of friendship have a long-term application. My wife and I practice marriage and family counseling. In our desire to maintain high standards of integrity and performance, we have asked a variety of our friends to gather as an Advisory Council – a council of friends – and we have entered into a covenant of accountability with them. The function of the Council is to examine and critique our work and suggest areas for change and growth.

Each member has been selected for a specific reason and charged with the responsibility to oversee a particular aspect of our work. Some members, who are current clients, are asked to monitor our work and give us feedback. Others are colleagues, assigned to roles which help us relate better to professional issues of our practice. Each person is carefully placed in a role and contracted to remain in that role even when the Council is not in session. We keep in close communication: each member checks in with us periodically, and we call individuals when we have a question relevant to their roles. Advisory Council members are encouraged to talk to each other freely about us and their concerns for us. The Council holds scheduled meetings two or three times a year, but meets as frequently as necessary in a time of need or crisis.

This council of friendly advisors has worked well, giving us support, encouragement, guidance and feedback – as well as providing us with a sense of being part of a larger whole, to which we are accountable. Indeed, it is the most demanding and enjoyable system of accountability that I have ever experienced.

Developing a council of friends involves a careful examination of your needs and of your friends’ strengths. This evaluation allows you to choose people who can give you the specific assistance you need, and help compensate for your weaknesses while drawing out your strengths.

Creating a circle of friends, that "mutual benevolence" of which Plato speaks, gives us both tangible assistance and a sense of being vitally connected with others. Self-employed people, from accountants to artists, are finding that their former sense of isolation was self-imposed, and that, with friends, they can enjoy help with creativity, management, marketing and public relations. These experiments in practical friendships are resulting in many people becoming more open to their dreams of how life can really be – and in more people asking for help rather than remaining isolated and depressed.

Short Term Help from Our Friends Some uses of friendship are short term, such as assistance during a crisis. How many people do you know that you could count on to help you in an emergency? Gandhi reminds us that "The test of friendship is assistance in adversity, and that, too, unconditional assistance. Cooperation which needs consideration is a commercial contract and not friendship. Conditional cooperation is like adulterated cement which does not bind."

Mary, a single parent, was called away to be with her dying father, and she knew she would be away from home for at least a week. She gathered a group of friends together to ask for some very practical help. She asked Alice to stay with her children and get them off to school and Fred, a neighbor, to take her son to soccer practice. A co-worker volunteered to cover certain aspects of her job, and her pastor promised to come by and talk with her children while she was gone. Upon her return a week later, one of her friends picked her up at the airport, and the entire group gathered to meet with her.

Another short-term use of friendship might be asking for support during a time of transition (such as a change in job) or in a process of actualizing a life dream.

Gladys is a bank teller who earned a Master’s degree in counseling. Unable to tolerate her old job any longer, she gathered her friends together and in just a few evenings of discussion was able to articulate her dream of creating an exciting new job and then to become comfortable with it. She went on to open her own office, develop a successful practice and enjoy the friendship of colleagues. In the process she was able to identify valuable attributes of several of these colleagues and friends, and asked them to become advisors to her new practice.

The Goodenough community has rediscovered the ancient concept of discernment to assist people in making major life decisions. The word discern comes from the Middle French discerner, which refers to a grain separator and to the process of separating chaff from wheat. Friends are selected to help look at all aspects of a decision. They do not make the decision, but help you become aware of elements you had not considered yet. They provide expertise where it is lacking and notice what you are thinking and feeling, perhaps before you are even aware of it, in order to reflect it back to you. Sometimes two or three sessions are all that is needed to make a decision – one with more clarity and self-confidence than you could have managed by yourself.

George and Sally had been intimate friends for years; they often talked of marriage but were unsure enough to keep postponing the decision. A community friend suggested a process for them in which they set aside a month to make the decision – with the help of friends. They interviewed a dozen friends separately, obtaining feedback on their relationship. One week they pretended to break up, and noticed their internal responses. Similarly, they spent a week imagining their wedding and married life together. When the month was up they met with their friends to share their conclusion – and, in this case, to celebrate their engagement. This process mobilized a great deal of supportive energy for their wedding and for their marriage.

This story also exemplifies the process of empowerment. The couple felt empowered to make a commitment. Ceremonies of empowerment are routine in our community for people taking on new responsibilities, and for people needing to clarify a new professional image and receive support for new roles.


Examples of practical friendship, such as the ones just discussed, are providing us with models for wise use of friendship as a strategy for growth and development. In my experience, our society has very few models for creating relationships that support our growth and few ways of getting the assistance we need. As the family structure disintegrated, the task of facilitating personal growth was taken over by institutions – educational, social service and psychological institutions. This has resulted in the twin imperatives of social conformity and psychological adjustment – and in dis-spirited people. We’ve become suspicious of our inner workings, doubtful of our ability to shape our own lives and know what is best for us, and disheartened by an environment that judges, compares and labels us instead of acknowledging and nourishing our uniqueness.

It is my premise that this world has negated friendship as a viable strategy for building one’s life and furthering one’s development. The challenge of becoming a fine person rightfully belongs to each individual and his or her friends. In his book The Evolving Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), Robert Kegan devotes an entire chapter to "Natural Therapy" – the natural facilitation of developmental work by people who shape relational environments. While lamenting the stance of professionals who see universal psychotherapy as the solution to life’s problems, he envisions a population knowledgeable about adult development, where we would and could befriend each other by supporting lifelong growth and learning.

I have been suggesting that personal growth does not happen in a vacuum but within relationships AND that modern life weakens and toxifies our relationships so that they are no longer the nutrient culture that grows strong individuals. I am further suggesting that we need to have a change of heart and mind, we need to value friendship and intentionally shape a relational system around us that nurtures our personal uniqueness.

To develop a culture that values friendship and understands the resource of relationship as both a context and a learning process, we will need to affirm the following:

1) Each individual is a unique being.

2) Each person is responsible for his or her own development.

3) The essence of personal growth is self-awareness and responsibility.

4) The attainment of self-knowledge and self-acceptance on an ongoing basis is the greatest source of fulfillment.

5) Human development, with its long period of parental dependency, implies the paradox that individuals require a lot of help in learning to take charge of their own lives.

6) Fear of dependency and social pressures for individuation and self-reliance have often resulted in a reluctance to ask for help from friends and even family.

7) If we wish to re-choose the path of friendship-building as a strategy for returning the twinkle to our eyes and a song to our hearts, then we will need to restore some of the old rituals (the ancient word) or processes (the modern word), which create a true growth culture through development of relational context.

8) We need to experience things as they happen, to feel them, to talk about them. To talk about relationships is a basic skill activity of human consciousness.

9) Since each person is the center of his/her own world, it would be wise for each of us to learn how to choose our friends, build relationships with them, and teach them how to enrich our world.

10) The essential contribution of this task of choosing, valuing and utilizing friendship is that it matures us by helping us become skillful in stating who we are and asking for what we want from friends. The resulting feedback and criticism facilitates the development of emotional control and wise use of resources. Relationship is both the place we learn and the method by which we progress.

The last few hundred years of materialistic and empirical science left very little room for the subtleties of feeling and intuition – the core stuff of friendship and of spiritual aliveness – and fostered in us a feeling of inadequacy and a reliance on professionals to tell us of our inner workings, our hearts and minds. This trend is being reversed by the growing edge of science, and of psychotherapy in particular, which is rediscovering the primacy of consciousness as the causal force behind the universe, our lives, and our relationships. Our lives are our own dreams coming true; and our relationships are where we express our view of reality.

We need to know how to build relationship and how to use that field of force as an energy to nurture and guide us – it is our primary resource for human evolution and individual spiritual development. Relationship is an effective agent of change. It is in relationships that we collaborate with each other to create a better world.

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