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Five Awkward Friendship Moments: What Do You Say When...?

Many close friendships on the brink of disaster can be salvaged if friends are able to communicate openly and tell each other what's bothering them.
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Every friendship, even the best of them, has predictable peaks and valleys -- but the low points can still threaten even a solid friendship. Perhaps, the friend who you were sure would be your best friend forever (BFF) is beginning to feel intrusive and grating on your nerves. Or your BFF has disappointed you, let you down big-time, or displayed an inexcusable lapse in judgment. It may even be something more subtle, yet equally serious: You're seeing each other less and less, and you simply feel like you are drifting apart. What do you say?

Many close friendships on the brink of disaster can be salvaged if friends are able to communicate openly and tell each other what's bothering them. But it's normal to feel awkward and tongue-tied about speaking up and talking about uncomfortable things; we all find it difficult to find the right words to say at the right time.

What better person to ask about how to handle some of these awkward but common friendship scenarios than Florence Isaacs, author of the recently released What Do You Say When...Talking to People with Confidence on any Social or Business Occasion (Clarkson Potter, May 2009)?

The questions I posed to Florence each began with What do you say to a friend when...?

Here are her responses:

1) ...your friend talks about herself too much and is beginning to bore you to tears

It depends on how close you are and how much you get out of the relationship otherwise. If you're not that close, the answer is, "Take her in small doses." Maybe you have to see or talk to her less often and/or limit the amount of time you spend on each encounter. On the other hand, if she's your best friend and you want to protect the relationship, you need to talk about this or the annoyance can build and lead to an explosion. You might try something like, "Our friendship is really important to me, but I feel our conversations are never about me and my life. I miss the back and forth we used to have." Then keep quiet and let her respond. She may not realize she's become so self-involved, or there may be some reason for her behavior that you're not aware of.

2) ... your friend asks too many personal or probing questions and is making you feel like you are on the witness stand

First try humor, as in "Asked and answered, counselor." This may help her realize she's overdoing it. But if she continues to behave this way and your relationship is close, you have to be honest. You might say, "Hey, you're asking a lot of questions. I don't like it. Back off."

3) ...your friend has undermined you at work

First find out whether it's intentional. Did she mean to harm you? If the answer is no, you can still address the situation with "I know you didn't mean to, but you messed up my client meeting." Deliberate undermining is another matter. In that case, the friendship is over. I'd confront the person and say, "I know what you did."

4) ...your friend always seems to be "booked" and inaccessible, and you feel like you are drifting apart

This can happen when one friend gets married or has a baby or gets a big promotion -- and the other friend does not. One has a new lifestyle and/or new time consuming responsibilities and obligations. It can take time for both of you to figure out how to adjust. Tell the person, "I feel we hardly get together anymore and I'm afraid we're disconnecting." She may be as unhappy about it as you are. A conversation can lead to brainstorming solutions. It's up to her to make an effort, however, because you've been trying to get together all along.

5) ...your friend has had an irreconcilable tiff with a mutual friend

Stay out of it. If she wants you on her side, tell her, "You're both my friends and I don't want to be part of this. It's strictly between the two of you." Don't let either of them drag you into their fight, although they will probably try.

* My prolific colleague and friend also wrote Toxic Friends/True Friends: How Your Friends Can Make Or Break Your Health, Happiness, Family, and Career (William Morrow, 1999).

Is there an awkward situation with a friend that is leaving you speechless? Send your question to The Friendship Doctor

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and her book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Breakup With Your Best Friend, will be published by Overlook Press in September, 2009. She recently co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog.