Friendships don’t come into being overnight. Once established, they mellow with time. A few simple rules can help people stay connected over the years through thick and thin. If your best friend does these ten things, you are blessed. If you do them, other people will seek you out.
1. Remember preferences and quirks
People notice when you remember what they like and don’t like. You can know a friend’s birthday and favorite flavor of ice cream. You can also recall that your friend was trying to find a lemon yellow blouse—and you can tell her you saw one at Macy’s. You might also bear in mind your friend’s allergy to scallops and his request that no one text him after 9:00 pm.
2. Ask open-ended questions
Ever notice how some people ask questions in such a way as to tell you what they don’t want to know? “How are you?” from the bank teller or the supermarket cashier demands the answer “Fine” or something similar, and some people will even tell you so: “How are you? Fine?” Yes-or-no questions don’t elicit much information either. So if you use open-ended questions—“What did Ben tell you yesterday?”—you will not only get more information but also send the signal that you are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. If you can listen without interrupting, your friends will become more open with you.
3. Keep confidences
Respect the personal information your friend gives you. Don’t share it with others unless you are certain your friend would approve. Some stuff is private. People have various bad reasons for sharing privileged information indiscreetly. Sometimes they want to demonstrate that they have a special, close relationship with the person who was foolish enough to confide in them. Sometimes they want to use a third person to send a message to the person whose privacy is on the line (often the gossip is angry or wants payback). Good friends listen, stay mum, and convey an attitude of acceptance.
4. Observe boundaries
Good friends don’t tell each other what to do or what not to do even if they don’t like what they are seeing. They respect each other’s ability to manage life’s challenges. If something seems wrong, they might say, “I’m worried about you” and say why. Then they might add, “Is there anything you need from me? Will you tell me if so?” Afterward they wait for instructions. They will also check in with each other. “Are you angry with me about something? Did I do something to offend you? I hope you will tell me if so. We need to be able to work things out.” Good friends also recognize that they each have the obligation first and foremost to take care of themselves. That is, good friends accept each other’s limits. They take no as an answer and assume that you mean yes if that is what you say.
5. Avoid judging
Good friends don’t criticize each other either explicitly (“You idiot!”) or implicitly (“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!”). They also don’t put down or make fun of people or things that are important to each other. If George is angry with his wife, and you are George’s friend, you might commiserate, but you would want to avoid telling George what a bad choice he made when he married her. I would also not want you, a valued buddy, to tell me that my beloved cousin Sally is a fat, selfish slob. When you feel tempted to pass judgment, you are better off simply asking more questions for better understanding. A good rule of thumb is to try to learn how the other person is feeling.
6. Speak and listen from the heart, not the head
The best friends listen attentively, ask questions, try to understand a person’s feelings, and voice their own appropriately. You can communicate anger, sadness, embarrassment, confusion, or any other basic human emotion with just about anybody as long as you remember not to use insults, name-calling, accusations, or any form of destruction. The best way to cover all bases is to express your complaint in terms of your feeling: “It makes me angry when . . .” or “I can’t tell you how frustrated I felt that . . .” The alternative—statements that someone or something was necessarily right or wrong—sound rather as if the speaker were trying to sound like God. We are all fallible, with the same uncertain access to eternal truths, and so it’s best to say simply how you were affected by the situation in question.
7. Be reliable
Follow through on your promises. If you can’t do something, don’t promise to do it in the first place. Good friends are dependable and expect to be held accountable for both their words and their actions.
8. Talk over problems promptly
You want to have a basic agreement with any good friend. It runs something like this. Each of you will try your best, and if there’s a problem, either of you will ask for discussion or clarification right away. Either of you will say to the other, “Wait, there’s something we need to talk about.” And you will both make it standard practice to iron out misunderstandings between you before you speak to anyone else about them. In this way silent disagreements cannot fester, no one harbors a grudge, and other people cannot be recruited to undermine your bond and your trust in each other. Good friends make it a point to spread the good word about each other and work out any problems between them in private.
9. Reach out
When a friend is in distress, express concern. If a friend needs something, ask whether you can help in some way. Take the initiative in asking as an expression of your caring.
10. Be supportive and encouraging
All of us crave appreciation, love, and a chance to give love. Be an appreciative friend. Accentuate the positive, as the old song goes, and downplay the negative. We humans have an astonishing capacity for growth and healing. Be a cheerleader. Celebrate all that is best in yourself and in others.