What is the key to maintaining friendships? Do you want your friends to stick around for a while?
You might know how to start new friendships, but it’s even harder to keep them. In The Like Switch, Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins provide methods for maintaining strong relationships by keeping new and old friends feeling valued and happy.
Take a look at how to maintain friendships for the long term.
The Fundamental Rule of Maintaining Friendships
Most of the authors’ advice for learning how to maintain friendships can be broken down into one simple rule: People like people who increase their sense of self-worth. If you do things for a person that contribute to their positive sense of self, they’ll associate good feelings with your presence, and they’ll want to be around you more.
(Shortform note: It may be true that people will like being around you if you make them feel good about themselves. However, the authors’ suggestion that you should keep your sole focus on making the other person happy could lead to a one-sided friendship if taken to the extreme. If your friend turns every conversation back to themselves or only wants to spend time with you when they need something, your relationship is probably one-sided. You should spend time and effort toward making your friends feel loved and happy, but it’s equally important to seek out people who reciprocate the support, attention, and care you offer them.)
There are many ways to make people feel good about themselves, and the authors outline several tried and tested methods.
Empathic responding is a type of communication that requires you to first notice how someone feels; then, speak to them in a way that shows you recognize the deeper emotional meaning behind their words and behaviors. The authors assert that responding to a friend empathically puts them at the center of the conversation, helping them feel understood and cared for.
Let’s look at an example. Say you have dinner plans with a friend. When she arrives at the restaurant, she’s clearly stressed about something. After you greet each other, you could respond empathically to her behavior by saying, “Looks like you had a long day.” This demonstrates that you recognize her stress signals and that you want to know more.
She tells you that she got in trouble with her boss today for missing a project deadline, but it wasn’t her fault. Your empathic response could be, “You’re frustrated because you got blamed for something that you couldn’t control.” With this response, you’re paraphrasing the basics of her situation, and you’re assigning a feeling to it (frustration) based on her reaction to the situation she presented. As this example demonstrates, empathic responding keeps the conversation going while validating and centering your friend’s experiences and emotions.
(Shortform note: Many other authors discuss the importance of empathetic communication in forming positive relationships. In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg offers an alternative way to empathically respond to others that uses questions to paraphrase the other person’s words instead of statements. For instance, in our example above, you could ask your friend, “Are you feeling frustrated because you got blamed for something you couldn’t control?” This still reflects her feelings, but it doesn’t presume you understood perfectly. According to Rosenberg, it’s important to check in frequently with the other person and not just assume your interpretations of their feelings are correct. The question format allows for this.)
The authors note that compliments can be a great tool in any friendship. They make people feel good about themselves by pointing out qualities you value in them and celebrating their achievements. However, compliments can often come off as insincere, especially when you don’t know a person very well. When used ineffectively, compliments may be mistaken for flattery, which suggests you want something in return for your kind words.
Schafer and Karlins offer a couple of workarounds that allow you to compliment people without them assuming you have an ulterior motive. First, you can send a compliment through a middle person. This involves complimenting your friend to someone you both know (someone who will tell your friend what you said). Your friend will still hear the nice thing you said about them, but it won’t seem artificial because it isn’t coming directly from you.
Second, you can make someone feel good by helping them to compliment themselves. Instead of paying a friend a direct compliment, make more generalized statements that highlight positive characteristics your friend can then realize they have.
For example, if a friend wears an outfit you like, a direct compliment might be, “That’s a really nice outfit. You have good fashion sense.” To instead help your friend compliment herself, you could say, “It takes an artistic eye to put such a fashionable outfit together.” In the second option, you’re setting your friend up to think, “Yes, I do have an artistic eye for fashion.” She compliments herself by applying the characteristics you identified—an artistic sensibility related to fashion sense—to her situation.
According to Schafer and Karlin, people readily take chances to self-compliment. Additionally, when the compliment is technically coming from themselves, people won’t assume insincerity.
Ask for Favors
The authors argue that asking a friend for a small favor makes them feel helpful and contributes to their positive sense of self. They’ll associate these good feelings with you and like you more.
For example, you might ask a friend if you can borrow their copy of a book you’ve discussed. It’s a small ask, but fulfilling it could make your friend feel charitable, increase their sense of importance, and show that you care about your shared interests.
It’s important not to ask for too much, though. If people think that you’re trying to take advantage of them, those good feelings can sour quickly.