[content warning for discussion of abuse near the end of the post]
A lot of people have intellectual knowledge about how to build relationships, so this isn’t going to be new for a lot of people. However, they still use ineffective strategies to build relationships; if that’s you, try using this as a wakeup call to put the strategies you know are right into action. Other people are going to be really confused by this, because it’s too abstract for them. Unfortunately, this is going to be true of any sort of social rules, many of which have to be learned through trial and error.
Try to adopt an attitude that– even though they’re flawed and often disappointing– all human beings are lovable and worthy. Not having this attitude, either about yourself or about other people, tends to make it harder to find friends. If you think you aren’t lovable or worthy, you’ll say “of course no one is friends with me! I’m totally useless!” when in reality you may be able to find a friend if you work harder. If you think other people are mostly stupid, boring, and selfish, then you’ll dismiss other people out of hand, when they could have made good friends if you’d been more open to the possibility.
Mere exposure tends to make people friendlier to other people. Neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and people who share your hobbies are all excellent sources of friendships. In my experience, the single most common cause of not having any friends is not ever talking to anyone.
People often like people who are similar to them, who share their interests, politics, lifestyle, morals, and attitudes. It is important that you find people who are actually similar to you, instead of pretending to be similar to them or (this one is for people with borderline personality disorder) picking up their personality traits willy-nilly. People tend to object when it turns out that you aren’t really similar to them, and it can be harmful to your self-respect to pretend to be something you’re not.
Most people want to be talked to. Awkwardness is survivable. Not knowing what to say is survivable. Creeping people out is survivable. None of those things are good, but they all happen to everyone who’s developing social skills, they don’t make you a bad person, and in a year (for that matter, in a month), no one is going to care. You don’t have to fill in quiet spaces in a conversation: quite often, the other person will say something.
Ask questions: people like talking about themselves. Respond to questions with a little more information than the person asked for: if asked where you work, continue with a comment about how much you like it there (or don’t). Keep your self-disclosure at about the same level as the other person’s: too much self-disclosure comes off as creepy, while not enough self-disclosure comes off as standoffish. Don’t interrupt other people. Learn things to talk about: take up a hobby, read books and articles, and observe others. It can help to prepare three conversational topics before you go to a party or other social event: perhaps a movie you’ve seen recently, something that happened on the news, and an interesting fact you learned about space.
Small talk is not evil. I know, nerds LOATHE small talk with all the fibers of our being. Look: no one cares about the weather. The point of small talk is not to exchange information about the weather. The point is to say “hey! I like you! I am not going to say anything mean! Isn’t it great that we are both part of the same tribe, and not going to attack each other?”, and perhaps to discover a topic of mutual interest. The best way to minimize small talk is to figure out a way to transition from the weather to things you’re interested in as quickly as possible. (“I like the rain, because it’s an excuse to stay indoors and read!” “Ooh, what do you read?”)
Express genuine liking for other people. Compliment them on things that aren’t super-obvious: as the saying goes, call smart girls pretty and pretty girls smart. However, use a delicate hand on this. If you have low self-esteem or think there’s no way anyone could possibly like you for you, it’s very easy to wind up giving so many compliments that you come off as sucking up. Try to limit yourself to about one compliment per conversation, or approximately as many as the other person uses, whichever one is higher. Never use compliments as a means to obtain a favor.
In a party or other social situation, some groups are open to outsiders, and some are not. Open groups tend to be standing somewhat apart, have gaps in the conversation, have members glance around the room, and are talking about a subject of general interest like a movie. You can usually treat a group as an open group if you know one or more of the people in it. To enter a group, wait for a break in the conversation, stand near a friendly-looking person, and say “hi!” or “Mind if I join you?”
In most social relationships, it’s hard to go wrong following a rule of reciprocity. If you’re worried about being annoying or harassing someone, try pulling back: wait for them to initiate a conversation, ask you to hang out, touch you, or whatever you’re concerned about. Once they’ve done so, you can safely assume that they would like you to initiate conversations, ask them to hang out, touch them, etc.
One crucial skill for making people like you is mindfulness of others. Relationships last longer when we are mindful.
Observe. Pay attention to people on purpose. Put the book, the tablet, the laptop, the phone aside. Observe their body language, their tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues. Notice what’s going on inside you: your feelings, your thoughts. Don’t focus on what you’re going to say next. Be open to new information about others; don’t cling to being right. Beware the illusion of transparency! It’s all too easy for both sides to think they understand and are understood, when that’s not the case.
Describe. To yourself (not to others) try putting words on your experience of others. Ask questions. Be like a news reporter or a cop: “just the facts, ma’am.” Remember that you can’t describe another’s motives, thoughts, emotions, wants, or history, because you can’t observe those things. Remember that the stories you tell yourself about human interaction aren’t the same thing as the actual interaction. Beware the fundamental attribution error, where we think our behavior is a part of our individual circumstances and other people’s behavior is because of their inherent personality. In particular, avoid assuming what other people think about you or questioning other people’s motives unless you have a very good reason. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Participate. This is the objective we’re trying to get to with the observing and the describing. Go with the flow: don’t try to control the interaction, but accept what happens. Throw yourself into the interaction. Concentrate entirely on the individual or group you’re interacting with. Engage. Notice your thoughts, but don’t get caught in them. In particular, make an effort to avoid self-hate: if you’re spending the interaction freaking out about what a terrible person you are, you’re not being mindful of the conversation. And– even as you shift out of describing into participating– be mindful of the distinction between the facts and your interpretation of the facts.
Non-judgmentally. Shockingly, most people don’t like it when other people are judgmental of them. Note that not judging is not the same as not having values. Saying “you’re cheating on your spouse, and I think that’s dishonest and lacking integrity” is not judgmental in the sense we’re using it here; saying “you’re a horrible person for betraying your spouse like that” is. When thinking and– especially– when talking to people, try to remove the judgments from your language. But remember that judgments are a natural part of life, and don’t beat yourself up about judging people. “I’m a horrible person for cruelly judging other people!” is, in fact, a judgment.
One-mindfully. Have one conversation (with one person or multiple people) at a time. Don’t bring up five issues at once, particularly if you’re upset about something. This rule is often breakable in casual conversation, but is very important for talking to people when you or they are in a terrible mood.
Effectively. Remember your goals in the interaction: building a friendship, finding people you like, helping other people, finding out information, meeting a need, or whatever it is. Do what is needed to reach your goals, instead of getting distracted by tangential issues.
A destructive relationship is a relationship in which you no longer care about or like the other person, or which spoils important aspects of yourself: your physical body and safety, your self-esteem, your integrity, your happiness, your peace of mind. An interfering relationship is a relationship with makes it difficult for you to pursue important goals, enjoy life, do things you like, or have relationships with other people (in general or specific), or which harms the welfare of people you love. You should always end destructive relationships. If an interfering relationship is with someone important (your family, your adult children, your spouse, your best friend), then you should try to repair the relationship first, using problem-solving and DEAR MAN GIVE FAST; if that doesn’t work even if you’ve put in a great effort, or if the relationship isn’t with someone important, end the relationship.
Never end a relationship when you’re over-emotional. Instead, make the decision when you’re calm; use both your emotions and your reason, and try to access your wise mind. If you decide you want to end the relationship, plan out exactly what you’re going to say. Imagine the worst-case scenario of their responses, and come up with a plan for them. Imagine what your life would be like without the person– both good parts and bad parts. If you rely on them for something, such as money, transportation, or emotional support, plan how you’ll get that without them.
Be direct. Use DEAR MAN GIVE FAST to end the relationship. Don’t blow up or avoid. Know what you want; don’t just react. Afterwards, it’s perfectly normal to still love the person– even if the relationship was destructive. Remind yourself of the harmful things they did and the ways that ending the relationship has improved your life. Avoid contact with reminders of your loved one and– God forbid– your loved one themself. If you get loving urges, try doing the opposite of them: for instance, distract yourself from thinking about them, or talk to a friend about all the things you dislike about them.
Some destructive relationships are abusive. If you’re planning on leaving an abusive relationship, it’s a good idea to have a safety plan. Safety planning for domestic violence is a complicated issue, much too complicated to get into at the end of a blog post: I recommend calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline or your local shelter, or reading Why Does He Do That? [cw: abuse apologist attitudes towards male victims], if you have any suspicion that your relationship may be abusive.
This is amazing and helpful! I need to come back and read it periodically.
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I’m not a big fan of “me too” posts, they feel sycophantic. But I would like to highlight the section on reciprocity. I’ve personally seen a lot of people have issues with this. Heck, I’m fully aware of it, but haven’t always transformed that knowledge into practice in an effective way.
There’s this almost dance like nature to human interaction- I step forward, but act like maybe I wasn’t trying to start a waltz, I was just maybe happening to move in a kind of waltz like manner, and I look to see how you react. Maybe you take a matching waltz like step, and I increase the odds I assign to the proposition “you would like to dance with me.” Maybe I do it again, a little more confident this time, and see what happens. And, VERY IMPORTANTLY, I maybe take a step back and see whether you take the lead on continuing the waltz. If you do, I join in again. And suddenly a waltz is happening without anyone ever being put on the spot.
I don’t always interact in an ideal way with this human tendency to play that sort of game. But understanding that it’s happening has been very important for me. It has, at least, let me understand a few of the larger social failures in my life. In one case it was a (platonic friendship) relationship in which I was always leading, and it felt more and more like I was dragging the other person along- even though they gave every explicit indication that they were happy with the relationship. So I pulled back a little and waited for reciprocity… and haven’t spoken to them in about five years. Not ideal, but better than dragging out a dying friendship for even longer.
In another, I’ve got on ongoing relationship in which the other half never engages in reciprocity, ever, in certain specific contexts. But she will verbally and explicitly state a desire for us to interact in those contexts. To continue the metaphor, she’s saying “Why don’t you ever ask me to dance,” and I’m thinking “Because you only dance if I explicitly request it, and during the dance you do only that which I signal you ought to do… and that signals to me that you don’t really want to dance, so I should stop asking.”
I haven’t solved that one and I’m not sure I can, but the reciprocity issue is definitely central to how I understand it.
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Thank you for this. I really struggle with a lot of social skills that are obvious to most people, and this is really helpful.
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