Thoughts on How To Build Successful Friendships

Early this year, I posted a popular article, Some Thoughts on Building a Successful Marriage. In it, I gave my thoughts on what it takes to make a marriage work – and since your spouse is your most important partner in your finances and your life, it’s important to have a successful relationship there.

Recently, “Gary” sent an email asking a similar question:

I read your this post about sucessful marriage every month. I was wondering if you can create such step-by-step guide for friendships.

I have lots of acquaintances but I am not good at making very close friends. It could be that I am not very open with my emotions and also influences from my parents but I can’t seem to make close friends.

Gary’s question is borne out of a number of recent posts on The Simple Dollar about the power of friendships and relationships – a topic that we’ll be expanding upon over the next month and a half with the book club reading of Never Eat Alone.

But what do you do after you’ve met someone and you want to actually build a lasting friendship? Lasting friendships are often the backbone of our social lives and help us in countless ways throughout our professional and personal lives. They come through for us when we need help, plus they provide the constant support and companionship that a friendship can provide.

Building strong friendships comes easily to some – and not so easily to others. Here’s what I’ve learned about building long-term friendships.

First, friendships wither without regular attention. If you don’t keep in touch in some fashion with a friend, they quickly become an “old friend” – someone that you might be able to rekindle a friendship with, but someone who’s not really an active part of your life. Sometimes, that happens due to a change in interest or in lifestyle (having children can often cause this), but quite often it happens unintentionally, particularly among people with very busy schedules.

On the other hand, regular attention to a friendship is the essence of building up a lasting friendship. This doesn’t mean you have to have a friend at your house every day to keep a friendship strong. Instead, it means that without regular contact, a friendship will fade.

What’s “regular contact”? There’s no exact recipe for it, but I usually define it this way: if I don’t have some idea of what my friend is doing in two weeks, I’ll get in touch with them.

Intrigued? Here are my fifteen rules for building lasting friendships with people.

Keep multiple lines of easy communication open. The more tools you have for keeping track of someone, the better. If you have their cell number, save it – you can easily text them or call them. If you have their address, pop it into your address. If they’re on Facebook, friend them. If they’re on Twitter, follow them. This allows you to keep track of what’s going on in their life – and makes it much easier for you to contact them very quickly. The more lines of easy communication you have, the simpler it becomes to simply get in touch with them at your convenience, which lowers the barrier to continued communication.

Make sure it’s easy to contact you, too. This is why I’m on Twitter and Facebook (and other social sites as well) – it makes it very easy for people to contact me. I keep an eye on both services (to see what my friends are doing), but equally important, I drop my own updates on these sites (so that my friends can see what I’m doing).

If you use such services and you’re silent on them, you’re engaging in a one-way conversation – and how interesting is that? Your contribution is absolutely vital – people who are following you or have friended you want to hear what you have to say.

Another tip – mention that you’re on such services in the footers of your email. Add a link to your Twitter feed or your Facebook page.

Make contact regularly, but be worthwhile. Part of the reason I follow lots of people on Twitter and friend lots of people on Facebook is so that I can keep track on what’s actually important in their lives. Few things bug me more than people who contact me without having anything to say. “Hi, how are you, I am fine, what are you doing?” contacts simply aren’t very interesting and they don’t sustain conversation.

Keep an eye on what your friends are up to and if you have something interesting to contribute to what they’re doing or saying, contribute it. Send them a message or an email, or give them a ring. If what you have is actually useful, you’ve taken another step towards cementing a real relationship.

Quite often, the thing you have to share isn’t a material item, nor does it cost anything other than a bit of time. Usually, it’s information. Most human relationships revolve around the exchange of information with one another, and if you provide lots of good information, then you’re a lot closer to being a good friend.

Exchange contact at least once every two weeks. I don’t keep track of this intensely – it’s merely a good rule of thumb with a good principle behind it. If I haven’t sent a message to someone recently, I’ll pay extra close attention to what they’ve been saying and look for some avenue for following up. If they’re not involved in online social networks, I will often spend some time attempting to recall what their most recent concerns were, then follow up with those concerns and see how they’re doing.

Direct contact is key to sustaining a friendship. While it can be useful to pay attention to what they’re saying publicly – and they’re likely following you, too – direct contact is still necessary and useful. You might be up to date with what someone’s doing, but contacting them directly by phone or other means is still the key piece of maintaining (and slowly building) a friendship.

Fill up your social calendar. You should strive to fill up your social calendar as much as you can with plans with friends (and others). A meal eaten alone is an opportunity lost – a chance to catch up with a friend, build another friendship, or get together with a larger group.

Pencil in your lunch breaks. Have friends over for dinner and a movie or a game. Once a week or so, host a dinner party and invite a mix of people. If you get invited to things, make an effort to go.

In short, start keeping a calendar and strive to fill it up with as many social activities as you can, particularly ones where you’re setting up events directly with specific friends (or attending larger events with friends). The more full your social calendar is, the more friends you’re building relationships with.

I confess that I have some difficulty doing this. My biggest challenge is that many of my closest friends are spread across the world, far away from where I live, and I sometimes find it challenging to open the door to new friendships. However, I do know from experience that it works – the more full your calendar is, the more strong friendships you’ll build.

Be helpful When a friend asks for help, this is the time to really cement a friendship. Be there for that friend. Help them in whatever way you can. Often, the best thing you can do is just listen without interjecting your own thoughts. Sometimes, though, you may be able to help by completing a task or sharing some information.

As long as it’s reasonable, always step up to the plate when a friend calls you. Such actions are the building blocks of lasting friendships.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help – but do it with tact. First of all, don’t expect help. Sometimes the difficulties of the lives of others means that they can’t help you with your situation, even if you’ve helped them in the past and even if they’d like to.

Second, ask in a personal way. It’s fine to broadcast your need on a service where people have chosen to follow you (like Twitter or Facebook), but don’t just send out a blanket email to all of your friends. Instead, contact the people you really need help from individually, by email or by phone (or even by stopping by). Make it clear that you want their help, not just that you’re seeking help from anyone for a problem you have.

Often, such requests go a long way towards building a relationship as well. Direct requests like this show that you do value a friend’s help and input and will make them quite happy to contribute, especially if the help you’re asking for is simple for them.

Celebrate their important moments in a special way. Don’t hesitate to host a party for someone on a major birthday or milestone. Don’t be afraid to take a friend out to dinner (or put a lot of work into preparing one of their favorite meals) to celebrate their new job or their engagement. Stepping up to the plate and making an extra effort to celebrate a friend’s big moments is often just as important as being there for them when there are problems.

Listen. If you’re saying more than 60% of the words in a conversation with a friend, you’re talking too much. Draw them out and get them to participate by asking questions of them. Listen to what they have to say and don’t interrupt them, even if that’s how you naturally converse. Then follow up based on what they have to say.

People want to be heard and to see that their ideas and thoughts have value to others. When you run roughshod by talking all the time or not actually listening, you’re running roughshod over that and damaging the friendship. If you think doing this is boring – then perhaps you don’t want this person as a friend, but as someone who merely follows you.

If a friend stops replying to your contacts, don’t be insulted – it’s often hard to understand what’s going on in their life. If that relationship is important to you, keep the window of communication open. Send emails on occasion, even if they don’t reply. Give them a call just to see what’s going on. Express some concern, but don’t intrude unless you know the person intimately. Look for a sign that they need help before you intervene.

Sometimes friendships die out. Friendships are based on mutual interests and commonalities. Over a long period of time, your own shared experiences may become those commonalities and you’ll have a lifelong friend, but quite often friendships die out or go dormant. Don’t be dramatic or overwrought about it.

One sure sign that you should perhaps let a friendship rest (and devote time to building other friendships) is if you’re doing virtually all the work in terms of making contact. It may be that the friend’s interests have changed and they have moved on to another part of their life’s journey. Back off and see what happens, but in the meantime, fill your time with other friends.

Never force a friendship to continue. It’s unhealthy for both people. Instead, let it drift away and grow dormant – perhaps in the future, opportunity will cause it to bloom again.

Good luck, Gary.

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