5 Better Ways to Help Your Friends
by: Tim Sosin, MA, NCC.
I recently made a friend in his early 20’s, and he told me about some relational issues he was having. He expressed his loneliness and desire for some “real friends” after recounting several situations when he felt excluded, or treated unfairly. He was not sure if he really knew how to relate to others; was something wrong with him and the way he went about building relationships? He shared that he felt socially short-changed because he had not been able to attend college in a social environment and acquire friends. He believed that he would not be in the same situation if he had been afforded opportunities for activities that would have developed his skill sets for being a friend, and being able to relate to others.
I wondered aloud if going to college really would have fixed the problem. Many students, for a variety of reasons, attend college and live in a dorm, but finish their senior year with very few friends. He had not “missed the boat” relationally, even though it was hard to build trusting, mutually uplifting relationships. In fact, he was in the same boat as many others around him. He and I collaborated to define safe relationships, and then used our relationship as a proving ground for interacting with others. We identified three themes and thought patterns that hinder friendships: the need for constant approval, viewing relationships as a competition, and believing something is constantly wrong that needs to be fixed and improved. Each of these make interactions seem forced, creating discomfort, and making relationship building superficial. My friend was ready to re-learn how to be a friend.
Can you relate? I know I can, and I believe that we live in a time when there are so many factors that influence our ability to relate to others and create satisfying friendships. For instance, relationships and conversations are very different than years before due to technology, which has many pros and cons. It is easy to send a quick text or an emoji, but could it be that we are beginning to get out of practice talking to one another face to face, and truly expressing ourselves? On another medium, I look back and know without a doubt that my relational style has been influenced by movies, television, and books. We might get a laugh watching television or reading a book, but I wonder if the way people relate to one another on the screen or on paper effectively models realistic relational skills that support purposeful and healthy communication. Another example: I used to love reading Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” comics as a kid; it was hilarious, but my parents immediately noticed a change in the way I spoke. I became more sarcastic, crass and defiant, and I didn’t realize a thing. Many say, “That wouldn’t affect me…” Are you sure?
Years removed, having watched hundreds of episodes of sitcoms and hundreds of movies, I’m not sure I remember what my own relational style looked like! What we digest affects our minds and spirits, which both affect our speech, behavior and interactions with others. Does this mean I have lost my ability to connect? I think not. The brain is amazingly resilient, and the power of a relationship, where one is known for who they are, is unmatched.
So, what are some easy ways to cultivate real relationships? Here are a few thoughts. This is by no means a complete list, perhaps you have something to add! Check out these five helpful tips:
- Remember that friendship it is not a competition; think of a conversation as no-man’s land, where each person is free from having to feel like they need to win a talk. No one needs to lose. No need to one-up anyone. This is especially challenging when someone is recounting a dream. Listen to your friend’s dream instead of thinking about how to explain the crazy dream you had!
- Maintain eye contact, and show that you care about what you are hearing with your body language. Ask questions, and get clarifications if you missed something. Listening to your friend will show you believe they are worth hearing and being around.
- Don’t try to fix problems. Hearing about someone’s discomfort can be uncomfortable. The best way to provide relief is not to be a fixer, but someone who can help shoulder the burden. You might have handled a similar problem and have great advice, but remember, this is not a competition as much as it is a journey. There will be a time to work together and tackle the problem.
- On the flip side, ask for help when needed. Being in a relationship creates mutual support where there can be honesty about weaknesses and needs.
- Relax, take deep breaths and be open to what your relationship will teach you. Everyone is a teacher in his or her own way, and conflict also provides excellent direction, be persistent and work together, and you won’t need to worry about improving while you grow as a friend.