Friendship isn’t something that we’re either good at or not. In the past, I’ve dismissed myself as someone who just wasn’t good at making friends. I’m learning, however, that much of what it takes to meet people, to be a good friend, and to cultivate satisfying friendships is made up of skills we can practice.
There is something inexplicable and special about friendship and who it connects. And yet, it takes nothing from the wonder of friendship to consider the skills that form its foundation.
Going Where There are People
It’s pretty difficult to make friends when we’re alone. If we want to make friends, it’s helpful to spend time in places where we will encounter other people. This can be in person or virtual, big groups or small. It can even be asynchronous like texting, communication apps, email, social media comments, or forum threads.
For those of us who feel nervous, uncomfortable, or drained in more social settings or who genuinely enjoy a lot of alone time, it can take some intention and practice to put ourselves in situations where we are likely to meet people.
In some ways this can be a bit of a numbers game. The more people we interact with, the greater our chances of meeting someone we’d like to get to know better.
At the same time, the goal isn’t necessarily to have more people we can label as friends. Having more friends is not proof that we are more likable. It is not a guarantee that we will feel more connected or loved.
It’s important to pay attention to what we really want. Why are we trying to make more friends? What do we want from those friendships? What do we value in the friendships we already have and what is missing?
I used to hang out on the edges and wait for someone else to come over and say hi. OK, I still do that sometimes, but I also practice initiating conversations and introducing myself. This is sometimes uncomfortable and I don’t become friends with everyone I talk to. It does, however, get easier the more I practice.
This doesn’t mean I have to pretend to be more outgoing and gregarious than I really am. I also don’t need to try to squeeze my way in to introduce myself to someone already surrounded by friends (unless I want to). Often the people I have the most in common with are the other ones hanging out on the edges.
As mentioned above, the more people I introduce myself to, the more likely I am to meet someone I really connect with. There is also less pressure on any one introduction when I know there will be other opportunities.
Getting Contact Info
I remember times when I met someone and had a good conversation or a fun time…and then never saw them again because we neglected to exchange contact information. It can feel vulnerable to ask when we’re not sure whether the other person is interested in continuing our acquaintance, but we miss out on any future connection if we don’t take the risk. Again, it gets easier with practice.
Similarly, if we want to get to know someone and spend time with them, it’s helpful to practice inviting them to opportunities to connect. Asking someone to spend time together can bring up fears. If I ask, will they feel pressured to do something they don’t want to do? How can I know what they’d like best? What if they say no?
It can be helpful to ask ourselves some questions before extending that invitation. We can be clear about what we want and ask in a way that supports the other person in giving an honest answer. We can support ourselves through our disappointment if we don’t receive the answer we hoped for.
Reaching Out Consistently
I don’t know how many times I’ve started a conversation with something along the lines of Yikes, it’s been too long. How are you doing? What have you been up to? As I practice reaching out more consistently, it’s helpful to keep a list of who I want to be connecting with and even scheduling times to check-in on my calendar.
Part of me thinks that all interactions should just flow naturally without any prompting. The truth is that distractions and fears of being annoying can get in the way of showing up for the people I care about. There’s nothing wrong with giving ourselves some structure to support the kinds of connections we want to create.
Listening well is an important friendship skill. Sometimes, however, we focus our listening on things that don’t actually build connection. Feeling uncertain about ourselves or our place in a friendship is one thing that often distracts us from listening well to another person.
Instead of listening for what our friend wants to share with us, we might listen for clues about what they think of us or what we can say that will make them like us. We might get caught up in planning what we’re going to say next instead of truly listening to the other person. We can, however, practice listening to get to know the other person and to show them we care.
Communicating in Ways That Reflect What We Want
Both the questions we ask and the answers that we give influence the openness and depth of our conversations. It doesn’t do much good to say we hate small talk and love deep conversations if we only ask surface level questions and hide what really matters to us behind topics like work assignments, laundry, and hockey scores.
Friendship can feel extra tricky when everyone is just guessing what the other person wants. We can practice sharing things like how often we’d like to get together, what we’d like to do together, our preferred modes of communication, what makes us feel really loved and seen, and so on.
There are many types and levels of friendship. One isn’t more inherently valuable than another. The question is, are the things you do and say creating the kind of friendship you want?
Something all of the skills listed above have in common is that they can feel vulnerable. Of course, certain skills may come more easily to some of us than to others, but meeting new people and being willing to let them know us without any guarantee that they’ll like us is courageous. That’s why some of the important friendship skills actually have more to do with our relationship with ourselves and our fear.
Tending to Our Relationship With Our Inner Critic
As we practice vulnerability, our inner critics might get louder or more persistent as they try to keep us from doing something they’re afraid isn’t safe. It’s extra difficult to practice our friendships skills when we have an internal voice criticizing everything we say and do or telling us all the reasons no one will like us.
The answer isn’t to ignore the critic, do whatever it says, or be mean right back. That doesn’t really work and it’s another way of being unkind to ourselves. Instead we can give our inner critics space to be heard, while asking for more respectful communication and not assuming whatever the critic says is true.
Identifying Our Stories
Navigating the vulnerability of cultivating friendships can bring up Stories or beliefs we have about ourselves, others, and what is possible. Some beliefs are helpful—for example, a belief that the world is filled with kind, interesting people. Other beliefs…not so helpful—for example, a belief that other people only pretend to like us.
Identifying and reframing our Stories is helpful in specific incidents and in the bigger picture. Here are just a few questions to get you started identifying some Stories:
- What do you believe about the quantity or quality of friendships you should have?
- What Stories do you carry about how other people view you or experience being with you?
- What does it mean about you or about the other person if someone doesn’t want or can’t commit to the same level of friendship as you?
Listening to Ourselves
When we are meeting new people or we’re uncertain of our place in another person’s life, it’s easy to get caught up in trying guess what they want and who they expect us to be. We might even change or hide parts of who we are in an attempt to gain their approval. Unfortunately this does more to get in the way of connection than to cultivate it.
In our relationships with others, it’s important to make space to listen to ourselves. This is how we continue to get to know ourselves so we can show others who we are. It’s how we get clear on what we really want in a relationship and notice anything that isn’t working for us. It’s part of growing our self-trust so we can risk being vulnerable while knowing we’ll be there for ourselves.
What changes for you when you think of friendship skills as something you can practice? Which skills are you already strong in? Which could use the most practice? What friendship skills would you add to this list?