Strong social connections make life better, but forging those social connections isn’t always the easiest thing in the world.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, to have better friends (and therefore stronger connections — the type where you feel heard and understood and supported for being exactly who you are), I need to be a better friend. And that’s not so hard, right?
When I make an effort to treat my friends the way I want to be treated, it does two things. First, it helps set the tone for the relationship right off the bat. Now, it’s possible they did it first and I’m simply responding in kind, which is great — hey, it’s probably why I’m invested in strengthening this friendship in the first place! But being the kind of friend you want to have works at every stage of friendship.
The other benefit is that it makes it very clear when someone in your life is not that kind of friend. Sometimes you can’t exactly cut that person out (like if it’s a coworker or family member), but knowing this can help you realize that maybe you don’t want to put a ton of time and energy into trying to win them over.
And remember, you don’t have to win everyone over. Not everyone has to love you (or at least, that’s what my therapist tells me), and it’s okay to not be wild about everyone in your life, even if they’re always going to be around. There are people who will probably always be in my life, but I don’t think I’ll ever have the kind of close bond with them that I have with my closest pals. And that’s fine — I don’t need (or want) that kind of friendship with everyone.
Maybe you’re reading this, nodding along, and thinking, “Yes! I want to have better friends and be a better friend and I want to get to work on that now! But … how do I do it?” Worry not! I’ve got a few ideas for ways to start being a better friend — today.
5 Ways to Be a Better Friend Today
1. Listen — just listen. I’ve talked to plenty of people who spend most of our conversation just waiting for an opportunity to talk. It’s not a great experience. Now, sure, there are going to be times when you have a lot to say and share and need to be heard — we’ve all been there. But check in with yourself the next time you’re having a long chat with a friend. Are you just waiting to share your story? Or are you really hearing what they have to say, asking questions to get more detail, and making sure they’ve shared what they need to share?
2. Be honest — even when it’s hard. I enjoy receiving compliments. But I also need to know the people I’m closest to will tell it like it is when necessary — with love and kindness, of course, and maybe a little bit of sugarcoating when needed, but, above all, with honesty. Be honest when it comes to positive things, too! Maybe you’re not one to always be effusive with compliments, but one of my closest friendships began when I told her how much I admired the way she handled a difficult situation I witnessed. I was nervous to say anything at first — I thought it might sound weird, I guess? But it led to our first of many deep, meaningful conversations.
3. Be vulnerable. If you’re typically the strong one in the relationship, maybe you don’t think you’ve got space to include vulnerability. But I’d argue that there’s room to be both — it’s not an either/or. You can be there for a friend, you can be their rock, but you can also talk about what you find difficult, share your struggles, and let them be your rock once in a while. It feels good to support the people you love, so let your friends do that for you.
4. Don’t expect an even exchange. When you care about someone, you give to them without expecting anything in return. Of course, if the giving is entirely one-sided — if you’re always doing something for someone who’s not also there for you — that isn’t a healthy friendship; that’s someone taking advantage. But! It’s important to remember that we all have different ways of showing we care. You might be a really thoughtful gift-giver, always picking up something special for your nearest and dearest when you go out of town. Your friend might never think to do this, but she might make dinner and invite you over to share her latest recipe frequently. So, as long as the friendship feels reciprocal, don’t keep score.
5. Have empathy and show support — even when you don’t agree. It’s okay to have different opinions, but when a friend comes to you in crisis after making a decision or taking an action that you would never in a million years do, it can be hard to hold back your judgement. But you’ll be a much more effective shoulder to cry on if you can really put yourself in their shoes and understand what they’re going through before offering advice. (Of course, if we’re talking about dangerous or illegal behavior, we’re not suggesting you enable it. But, you know, don’t be an asshat about it, either.)
Got any other tips for being the best friend possible, starting today? One thing my friend Danielle and I have learned is that neither of us is terribly decisive when it comes to making plans — we’re often open to anything that sounds fun and willing to go with the flow. So, we sometimes put a qualifier on a suggested plan, like, “I’m a 5/10 on seeing Aquaman tonight, but I’m 10/10 for yoga tomorrow morning.” It’s so much easier to make plans together when you know how strongly the other person feels about different options! —Kristen