Remember the names of significant others in their lives.
I repeatedly hear individuals of all ages—people who have friends, families and co-workers—say that they feel lonely. This has always fascinated me: How can one be surrounded by caring others and still feel dreadfully alone? I think about this every time I meet a new client: Who are their lives peopled by, and to whom do they feel closest and most connected? It is one thing to be surrounded by others; it is a totally different experience to feel bonded and close.
You may wonder how you can form closer bonds with your friends and family, and new people as well. There are some very wonderful ways to do so, while keeping in mind that some people may lack the bandwidth or the desire to establish more meaningful connections. The following is not an exhaustive list; ideas may need to be tweaked based on who you are interacting with. And, yes, some of these ideas may backfire, but based on my experience most of them will lead to more fulfilling relationships.
1. Ask questions.
Express interest in the person’s life. Most important, ask and then listen with your ears and your eyes. You get to know others through what they are saying and their accompanying body language . And we all love a person who listens to us. Speaking at others rather than listening seems to be much easier, and therefore more common. You are unlikely, however, to forge a bond with someone whom you do not appear interested in getting to know on a more than superficial level.
2. When the time is right, engage in a little self-disclosure.
This gives your partner in conversation permission to also self-disclose. And then you get to understand each other. You may even develop a set of issues to laugh about together and confide in each other about. Very few people want to feel that they are alone in thinking and behaving in a certain way, or want to be alone with their experiences. It is comforting and validating for most of us to feel like we are in good company.
3. Keep privileged information secret.
If you truly respect someone and want to seen as a trustworthy friend, do not share their secrets. This information should not be used as social currency in other relationships. Hold this information close to your heart and consider yourself honored to have been confided in.
4. Show up and be reliable.
Your friend is counting on you. If you don’t want to go to the party because you have social anxiety , be honest about what is going on. You don’t want friends to feel that you are avoiding them.
5. Be honest about your feelings.
If you are hurt, explain why. If you feel particularly wonderful about an interaction, share that, too. In close relationships we are honest and share the painful and the positive, because the good and the bad both make up the authentic human condition.
6. Share both your joys and your sorrows.
In turn, your friend or spouse will feel like he or she can do the same. People who are close act as cheerleaders for each other and are available to dry tears of pain and happiness . Remember that it is not only important to be available for the painful moments, it is equally important to be there to cheer on successes.
7. Share memories .
Who doesn’t secretly (or not so secretly) want to talk about their lives and the history that created the colorful tapestry of their current life? Most people are, in fact, yearning, to share memories, There are, of course, always exceptions, and it is my hope that you will recognize when there is considerable discomfort taking a walk down memory lane.
8. Ask the person sitting across from you about a painful event in their past that you have always thought should remain secret.
Frankly, many of us would like to talk a little about these events in the presence of a trusted friend—and in the right private setting. Secrets breed anxiety, not closeness.
9. Try not to overdose on each other.
Too much closeness can be a little frightening. Even those who are close don’t need to connect too frequently or on a deep level all the time. Sometimes a little space and levity also feed a close relationship and help keep it alive and well.
10. Try hard not to be judgmental.
We know what happens when people of all ages feel judged and criticized. They shut down. Of course, you may disagree with a friend but be kind with your opinion. Present your differing opinion gently if you feel it is both necessary and helpful. We are trying to open doors, not slam them shut.
11. Remember the names of significant others in others people’s lives.
This shows that you are paying attention. Ask about these people. It’s really all about being familiar with each other, and with the people and events that are important. Make it a point as well to remember birthdays, anniversaries and, for example, the date that your friend is having surgery, returning from vacation, or even having that difficult conversation with her adult son. When you keep track of what is going on in someone’s life, you are clearly close.
12. Pay attention to what brings out the best in others and talk about these activities.
We make others feel happy when we give them the opportunity to talk about what makes them tick. Guess what also happens? We feel closer to each other when good energy is generated by our interactions.
13. Be responsive.
There really is no excuse not to return a message that someone put effort into sending you. If you are extremely busy, at least send a message indicating as much and explain when you will be more available.
14. Sometimes you just have to let some things go and decide to forgive .
In the broad scheme of things, it is more important to maintain close relationships than to win an argument, right? And if there is a consistent source of conflict, you will refer to items 5 and 10 above and focus on being honest and nonjudgmental, right?
15. Try very hard to be attuned to others.
More than anything else, we want to be understood. Try to recognize when a friend is having a bad day simply by the power of observation and then acknowledge that you are aware of how they really feel. Similarly, try to recognize when their smile is not really a smile of joy and consider acknowledging that as well.