If you want to have a friend, be a friend. Everyone wants to have friends, and having friends makes you happier and healthier. But fewer people are willing to make the effort to be a friend. Many people are unaware—or try to forget—that being a friend requires work, that it’s a give and take, often with more giving than taking.
But though a friendship will always require some effort, sometimes it is harder than it ought to be because we don’t know what we’re doing. Friendship, like any other human activity, can be done successfully or unsuccessfully, well or badly. Here are a few secrets to making your friendships deeper, more meaningful, and more lasting.
Secret 1: Observe
Observe your friend. Try to figure out what your friend likes, what her favorite things are, what she wants in life. Analyze her moods and her patterns of behavior. Get to know what your friend looks like when happy or sad, and learn to identify triggers. Learn what subjects interest your friend, and what things bore her.
Now, some of you might be thinking “Stalker! Creep!” This is not what I mean at all. By no means do I intend to imply that you should read your friend’s diary, listen in on her conversations, read her emails or text messages, or stalk her social media pages. All it means is that instead of thinking only about yourself while spending time with your friend, you think mainly about your friend, and pay attention to what your friend tells you, not only directly in words, but also by reactions, expressions, and emotions.
Once you know your friend better, you will be a better friend. Why? Well, what do friends do? They do things together, help each other, talk with each other, enjoy each other’s company, and sometimes give gifts.
If you know your friend likes hiking, and you want to go on a hike, then that will be the friend you ask to go with you, not the one who prefers shopping, or craft projects, or painting her nails. If you know what your friend looks like when happy or sad, you will be able to ask the right questions, either to let your friend share her sorrow and make it lighter, or share her happiness and make it greater. You might even be able to tell when your friend won’t be able to handle it if you share your sadness or happiness with her at that moment.
You will have more satisfying conversations if you remember what things interest your friend, what things she was doing lately, and what topics bore her to tears. And you will know, if you pay sufficient attention, what things your friend wants, and what she doesn’t want, and thus will be able to avoid the pitfalls of gift-giving. We’ve probably all gotten a gift at some point thought, “What on earth will I do with this?” Observation is the only way to avoid being that friend.
Secret 2: Listen
In some ways this seems like a repeat of Secret 1, and it is related. We have all experienced a time when we really needed someone to talk to. Someone who would just listen. Now, most of us probably have the idea that listening means not talking. (Your parents or teachers probably told you so.) But it’s only partially true. There’s a lot more to it than not talking.
First of all, don’t look at your phone. Look at your friend. Not that you need to stare at her, but look in her direction at least occasionally, and don’t focus on something else, especially not your phone. Most people find it unnerving if you look them directly in the eye for very long, but you do want to “make eye contact.” The solution is to imagine a triangle formed by the eyes and the nose and look at the middle of this triangle. This helps you avoid seeming either confrontational—by looking directly at the eyes—or seeming insecure or aloof—by looking at things other than your conversation partner.
Next, don’t just sit there like a rock. Listening is not the same thing as hearing. Hearing is passive, while listening is active. Really listening will involve making noises like “mhmm” at the right moments, making gestures like nodding, and also asking questions. Asking questions is an essential part of listening. Wait for your friend to stop or pause, and if you still don’t understand after listening carefully to what was said, then ask for clarification. It often helps to repeat part of what your friend said to you, and then ask your question based on that. This shows that you really were listening, and that you care.
Also, if you friend really needs to talk, do remember that while you may have what seems like the perfect solution to her problem, you might need to wait for her to be done before suggesting it. And, there’s also the possibility that your solution won’t work, and you only think it will because you don’t understand what the whole situation is yet.
One more thing: a listening friend needs to be a safe person to talk to. If you are going to go and blab you friends troubles and secrets to the world the moment her back is turned, you won’t be her friend for long.
Secret 3: Help
We all know that a friend is always willing to help, and we are usually willing to help others when they ask for it. But if you really want to strengthen a friendship, you might need to ask for and accept help.
A lot of people have trouble accepting help, probably because they dislike the feeling of being indebted. But this can be a mistake in two ways. One, you might think that you have a friend when in reality you only have someone who you help. Worse, you might be stunting a real friendship.
Benjamin Franklin discovered that often the best way to gain a friend is to ask for a favor. This is called the “Ben Franklin effect,” and has been tested multiple times in various studies. The Ben Franklin effect is thought to be a result of cognitive dissonance. We tend to want our beliefs and acts to match. If they don’t we get “dissonance,” which is resolved only by changing either the beliefs or the actions. We help our friends, and therefore the people that we help must also be our friends.
Also, we tend to get a warm feeling of satisfaction if we genuinely help someone. So refusing help can actually be a selfish act, putting our own reluctance to feel indebted over our friend’s desire to be of assistance.
Secret 4: Relax
Your friends will not always do things your way. And that’s fine. It is important to be flexible and allow things to be a bit different than you imagined. Your friend might also do things you don’t like. That’s probably fine too. In most cases, your friend isn’t actually deliberately trying to annoy you. Realize this, and your life will be much easier and less dramatic. Also, your friend might say something bluntly. If so, be grateful! If you ask your friend if a dress makes you look fat, and she says yes, thank her! If your friend tells you something you are doing might be bad for you, be grateful. It means she actually cares about you enough to tell you the truth
This does not mean that you should seek out people who say negative things for the sake of being negative. People like this can be unhealthy to spend time with. A friend who tells you the truth even when it hurts, however, is a gift whose value cannot be underestimated.
Lastly, if you want friends, you need to get over the fear of rejection. You might ask someone to do something with you, and she might say no, but then again, she might say yes. Someone might not want to be your friend even if you ask, but no one will want to be your friend if you never ask.
This might sound like a lot of work. It is. But every worthwhile thing in life requires work, and friendships—meaningful loving relationships with other people—are perhaps the most worthwhile things in life. Forming more and better friendships will enrich your life as well as the lives of others.