“No friendship is an accident.” –O. Henry, Heart of the West
Recently I was telling a friend how grateful I was that she had initiated a get-together.
“No one ever reaches out to me,” I complained. “I feel like I am the one driving all of my relationships.”
“Well,” she responded, “don’t think too highly of me. I almost never reach out…to anyone.”
I mulled this over on my way home that evening. I have often felt like the driving force behind many of my relationships. But I have also felt on many occasions that I’m just as bad at keeping in touch as my friends.
The truth is, many of us are terrible at relationships. We leave our social connections up to chance, only spending time with the people we happen to see during the course of our week.
Sometimes we invite people to spend time with us, but then once they get there we divert half of our attention talking to friends on our phone. Some of us are good at having actual conversations, but not very deep ones—we stick to topics like the weather, the results of the recent sports game in the city, or what’s trending on social media.
We have come to prize friendships of “convenience” above friendships of substance.
It’s become more important to us that we make our next meeting or social engagement, respond to the most recent tweet, or check out what’s trending on Facebook than to take the real, raw time it requires to build solid, edifying relationships.
However you look at it, there is a lot of room for growth when it comes to building friendships and community in our day and age. What are some ways you can foster caring and supportive relationships today in a digital, easily distracted world?
1. Initiate and reciprocate.
As much as we all want to be invited by others, you have to remember that they are craving to feel included just as much as you are. You could wait for someone else to ask you to do something, but you may be waiting forever.
Swallow your pride and just take the first step. Invite them over for dinner, grab coffee in the morning, check out your local museum, go to a concert together or a walk in the park—the possibilities are endless.
Not all relationships that you initiate will pan out, but being willing to take that first step can go a long way toward creating the foundation of a lasting friendship.
Of course, this won’t be the only step. Equally as important as initiating is reciprocating when someone else reaches out to you. Initiating with someone once is not going to get you very far if you don’t follow up with more invitations, or they don’t reciprocate in kind.
I have countless friendships that have burned out because I became frustrated with always being the one to suggest outings. Don’t be that friend. If someone has made the effort to reach out to you, give them the courtesy of doing the same for them.
2. Be present.
If we want to develop deep relationships, we’ve got to put down our phones. Or tablets, or computers, or whatever else is distracting us from really connecting with the people sitting right in front of us.
Consciously focus on listening to what people are saying. Respond accordingly. Ask questions that show you really care about them. If they tell you about something they’re struggling with or excited about, bring it up the next time you talk to them.
People will be much more willing to invest in you if they feel you truly care about them and what’s going on in their lives, and you can only make them feel you care about them if you really do care. Put the distractions away and commit to being present with your friend for the time you are together.
I think about this principle often when I contrast my relationships with my brother and my husband.
My brother is addicted to his phone. He is always on it—updating his social media accounts, responding to texts, or doing research for work.
When I have asked him to put it down and focus on me, he usually gets annoyed with me. This has caused enormous tension and friction between us, because I feel unimportant and he feels like I’m trying to control him.(Granted, as siblings there is plenty of other baggage between us to cause friction, but the phone is definitely a big part of it.)
My husband, on the other hand, makes a very conscious, intentional effort to not even have his phone within arm’s reach when he is talking with other people.
I consistently hear people remark on how loved and important he makes them feel, and personally I have never felt like I was playing second fiddle when I’m around him. It makes me feel so much more comfortable around and close to him.
I cannot overestimate how important it is to a good relationship to make people feel valued when you’re with them.
3. Open up and be real.
Sometimes people need to be coaxed out of their shells by hearing someone else share before they’re willing to do the same. Don’t assume that if you start telling them about yourself they will judge you or remain taciturn.
Give them the benefit of the doubt and just be willing to open up. Tell them about your life. Ask about theirs.
After I first got married, I sunk into depression—I know, not exactly the “happily ever after” that I was hoping for. I felt so lost, so alone. Everyone around me was living their happy little perfect lives, and here I was floundering hopelessly all by myself.
When I finally mustered up the courage to talk to my friends about my challenges, however, I realized that no one actually has a perfect life. Many of them were struggling with some of the very same things that I was, and by being real and honest with them I found succor, solidarity, and hope during a very dark period of my life.
Be vulnerable enough to tell people what you hope for and need. Your friends want to help you, but they’re not mind readers. Giving them a little insight into your life can go a very long way.
This list seems so simple! And yet, it is so rarely actually executed. I know so many people, myself included, who have pined for deeper friendships for years and yet never actually taken the time to invest in them. True friendships take work. With a little effort, together we can build better and more supportive communities.
What can you do today to start deepening a relationship that you care about?