Want to Be a Good Friend? Here’s How

This is a guest post by James Martin, SJ.
listeningI read recently a quote from—I can’t remember exactly who!—a Jesuit who said that you don’t have to have advanced degrees to help someone.  In other words, in order to be a good friend, you don’t have to be a psychotherapist or trained counselor.  (As Jerry Seinfeld said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”  Many of my friends, and I, have benefited greatly from seeing counselors, and they are the ones to turn to with serious emotional problems.) 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good listener.   And that’s part of being a “person for others.”

Almost 20 years ago, in the Jesuit novitiate, we were told that one of the hallmarks of a good friend is that he or she really listens.  That’s hard to do these days.  Too often we’re intent on thinking about what we will say in response or should say in response that we don’t really listen.  We’re more focused on ourselves than on the other.  But for a person in crisis, or a person who is embarrassed by something that he or she is going through, simply listening can be great gift—it helps a person feel less alone in crisis, and more respected if he or she is embarrassed about a particular situation.

So the next time you’re trying to be a good friend, a person for others, do something simple: listen.
James Martin, SJ, is the author of My Life with the Saints and A Jesuit Off-Broadway.


  1. Eric says

    I thank you especially for your comment about us thinking about what we SHOULD say in response. It is not self-centered and it is sincere. But you have made me realize it is simply the wrong approach. I once made a individual eight-day retreat. I was struggling with an issue in my prayer, and my retreat director (one of the most wonderful Jesuits I have ever known) seemed to be giving me no guidance. Then the breakthough came in my prayer, and I told the director about it. He said that he understood my struggle, but that the grace I needed had to come from God in prayer. It was not his role to provide a solution. I suspect that our listening to a friend may help open the friend to hearing God as he or she gives expression, and thus possibly clarity, to the issue involved.

  2. Michele says

    Thank you both for your sharing. I know I often jump in before I should, rather than just listening. The helper/mom/teacher in me takes over when someone comes to me with their story. This might seem odd, but I do better when I am not the intended ‘ear’–when I am in the background. I pay closer attention to the words, tone, body language, etc. My response is not words but to hold them in my heart. I wish I could do that more often when I am the intended ‘ear.’

  3. says

    My husband just came back from a conference on social justice, where as part of his talk he asked fellow academic to listen to each other for 90 seconds. Don’t talk back – just listen. He reports they found it a tough thing to do — but a very worthwhile thing to try.

  4. Carol says

    Listening: Yep, it’s simple, all right, but not easy at all. By the way, I do have training in being a professional listener: I’m a registered psychiatric nurse.

    While doing the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, I was very grateful to learn the prayer technique of application of the senses and construction of place. It really all came down to noticing and paying attention, skills readily translatable into any sort of relationship, whether it is our relationship with God, personal relationships, or even therapeutic relationships. We can’t observe if we’re not looking, and we can’t hear if we’re not listening.

    Immersion and engagement of all my senses in prayer started to turn me into a better listener, and I hope, in addition to being a better Christian, a better friend, and a better nurse.

    • Sara Damewood says

      Hi, Carol. I’m sure psychiatric nursing is very challenging at times. Do you ever find that you are trying so hard to listen to everyone all the time, that you don’t get your laundry done? (=: I do. Trying to find that balance. For now, I think I’ll turn off the computer for a while so I can go plant my poor little plants that have been sitting out there in the hot sun. I got distracted trying to research immigration reform… and one thing led to another… and another… and…

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