Rain or shine, for over a decade, my college friend Jane Burns has been walking the same route in Lake Oswego every morning at 7:00 am with the same hardy group of women. Neighbors yet strangers at first, the habit has bound them together.
Inevitably when the same people meet regularly they get in sync in mysterious ways; they talk in shorthand and know what each other are saying, even when they choose silence to covey it.
Every Wednesday after work, also for more than a decade, my friend Paul Geffner joins other men on the public basketball court next to the park and the tiny city hall in Sausalito. Watching the rag tag look of them when I’m on my regular walkabout with friends, it would be hard to guess what the men do for work or how much money they make yet it’s clear by the verbal jabs that they are thoroughly enjoying themselves. I know from conversations with Paul that the players have included two sushi chefs, an animator from Pixar and a stay-at-home Dad.
Over time, repeated a ritual gets us in sync so we see each other more clearly:
1. Our regular gatherings become the place where we are most likely to tell the stories that are giving our lives cohesion and meaning.
2. The gatherings themselves become, over time, an increasingly central part of the narrative of those stories we tell.
“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” ~ Oprah Winfrey
Why start a closed group?
When you start a group you have the opportunity to change the role you play in the stories you tell and you live. Change your story and you can change the kind of adventure story want for your life now.
In this time-starved, often transient world nothing beats the comfort of a regular ritual of face-to-face contact, especially sharing time in motion together, for becoming extremely familiar with each other and increasingly mutually supportive. We women, for example, don’t have to be twisted sisters.
Yes, it’s helpful to have slight acquaintances, especially as we are making radical changes in our life or trying on parts of our personality long forgotten. But, with the moves, job and life changes and fewer formal affiliations we can feel alone when our friends are in different parts of our lives and we do not have a regular group that knows us well.
Because we have fewer threads of continuity in our lives it is well worth the time to create a small group, perhaps around a shared activity however daunting it might be to suggest such a thing to others. That may be why so many book groups have sprung up – not just to discuss what we’ve read but how we felt about the book – and our lives.
My friends Diane Lee and Tom Morrison are having great fun with a group of food lovers who dine in a different restaurant each month. A client told me that he has been part of group that has gone to movies together, then met afterwards to dine and talk about them. They just changed to meeting in one person’s home, sharing sofas and chairs, watching Netflix-streamed movies on a big screen, then dining in, potluck style around a table to discuss them.
“I missed all the girlfriends I left behind and often thought about how a grown woman would ever make friends like that again,” she said. “When I started throwing this party, I realized food is one of the best ways to bring people together” said Cookie Swap author Julia Usher.
Consider co-hosting your modern version of the cookie exchange or a Sunday potluck. By the way, last December a male friend who’d been working long hours on his biotech start-up wanted to start a regular gathering of friends who were not related to his work. So he hosted a cookie exchange with his men friends, suggesting that each bring a favorite they remember their mother or other family member made and to come with cookies and a related memory to share. All nine showed up.
As you think of whom you’d like to get to know better in a group setting, consider two things.
First, settle on a core belief or interest that all potential participants share – your sweet spot of mutual interest that can bind you together. Second, seek a diverse mix of individuals – not more than seven as that seems to be the limit for becoming close as a group.
“Groups become more extreme and entrenched in their beliefs and polarized from others when members only exchange information that reinforces their views and filter out all else or never learn of alternatives. Thus they narrow their options, and magnify each other’s prejudices and misconceptions.” ~ Cass Sunstein
Your variety of backgrounds means both a richer experience together but also the increased potential for misunderstanding or even conflict at times. Yet the opportunity to share and grow exponentially more – emotionally and intellectually – is often worth the effort.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~ Carl Jung
If you feel bold enough to recruit one likely member for a small group, then tell that person the core interest that you’d like all members to share. Ask for feedback and listen closely. That shared interest is the sweet spot and can be group glue. After you find your first person, agree on a total number and together agree on the third person to approach. Involve all committed participants in choosing the next prospective member until you have reached your total number of members. Agree on a few rules of engagement on vital topics like confidentiality, format for meeting if any and let the rest evolve. You are more likely to build trust if you close the group at that number and focus on building the sense of “we” as you get to know and support each other over time.
One final thought: sharing experiences enables us to mirror each other’s emotions and thus feel greater empathy for each other. That not only brings us closer, evoking one of the most meaningful memories we can share, looking back on our lives, it positively affects the friends of our friend’s friends.
Our close-knit group’s mutual support ripple out in comforting ways we feel first hand and in ways we will never know.
As Marconi Iacoboni wrote, “Some of us cry when we watch sad movies or wince when we see athletes fall. This sense of shared experience is at the core of human experience. Because our brain has mirror neurons, we are capable of interpreting facial expressions of pain or joy, the first step towards feeling empathy, which causes an instinctively imitative response – the chameleon effect.
That ‘mirroring’ response enables two people to literally see they are more alike in that moment. That similarity evokes familiarity and thus a feeling of comfort that can lead to mutual trust with others.”